the Presses: PEP, an alternative to GREDA
For many years I have been highly critical of the
organizations that have handled economic development for Galesburg and Knox
County. I have always tried to not just take pot shots (however easy the
target) but endeavored to offer suggestions of alternative approaches only to
be ignored and dismissed as an opponent to progress, growth or economic
development. This is the customary method of parrying any form of criticism and
the way occasionally defiant elected officials are strong-armed into quiet
acquiescence whenever they speak out critically, however mildly. In this way,
like so many other things in Galesburg, the status quo is maintained merely
because people are made afraid to even suggest (much less implement) change
even when incontrovertible evidence that the current approach does not work is
impossible to ignore.
I am about to suggest a bold alternative approach that
is simultaneously both revolutionary and a common-sense answer to the ever-present
question: “If what we are doing is so bad describe a better way.” Will what I
am about to suggest result in immediate or even short-term economic development
success? Most likely not. But we have had a quarter-century of economic
development failure even as our public investment has gone up. What I can
assure you is that my approach will yield immediate and long-lasting dividends
for all Galesburg citizens and visitors alike. But first we must evaluate the
existing economic development effort.
Galesburg's present approach to economic development
is essentially the same as that taken in most Illinois communities and, as far
as I can determine, with similar results. Try as I might to identify a
community outside of metropolitan Chicago with a successful economic
development strategy I simply couldn't. On the other hand, there are plenty of
examples of failures that mirror the Galesburg experience.
Economic development success stories are few and far
between and most often seemingly have little to do with local economic
development efforts yet, just as in Galesburg, the local economic development
group always claims credit.
Typically there is little evidence that the local economic development group
did more than pop us as the deal was closed. Frequently they arrange for an ex
post facto incentive package that is tangential with the decision to locate
there but will be graciously accepted nonetheless. Most often economic
development success appears to be the result of favorable geography and demography
plus the exigencies of short-term economics rather than the product of finely
crafted local economic development efforts.
It is for these reasons that there are virtually no
medium to large industrial projects to be attracted to the Galesburg area and
hence the traditionally defined objective of our economic development effort
is, realistically, unattainable. Unlike Peoria or the Quad Cities, Galesburg is
not favored with industrially attractive geography. We do not sit upon a major
river, lake or ocean; we do not possess a large available population of highly
skilled and well educated workers; and we do not possess as quality of life
that distinguishes Galesburg from any other small Midwestern community.
When the founders of Galesburg chose this spot they
wanted to locate a small college in a remote area of the plains where the
citizens could successfully farm and raise a family insulated from the
corrupting influences of teaming cities. It was only years later that local
merchants and bankers saw economic benefit in attracting the railroad and
bringing industry and broader commerce to the Galesburg area. For most of
Galesburg existence, and especially before the arrival of the railroad, the
slow speed of travel required that geographic regions be largely self-sustaining.
This meant that industrial operations were necessarily smaller and withing a
trading region very diverse to meet the range of needs for that region. The
arrival of the railroad greatly expanded the size of these trading regions and
reduced the diversity of local economies but the near death of American
manufacturing only came as a consequence of unfettered international trade, the
overseas availability of ample cheap labor and, most importantly, America's
loss of self-control as we embrace greed and short-term economic advantage at
the expense of all other concerns. This is why even geographically and
demographically blessed American cities no longer retain their once mighty
industry much less regularly attract new industry.
To be successful today a community needs at least
three things: a diverse, vibrant and self-sustaining population; a dependable
tax base to support both necessary public infrastructure and services that make
a community viable; and the necessary as well as supplemental amenities that
truly make a community an attractive place in which to live. All three of these
are necessary for a community's success. Our emphasis on economic development
has been an example of misplaced priorities. Local jobs are nice and beneficial
to the community but not necessary if employment opportunities are available
nearby. On the other hand employment opportunities will not exist in the
absence of available workers that a quality community provides.
I am proposing that we abandon the costly and futile
effort to attract industry to Galesburg and instead focus on retaining and
attracting people to Galesburg. Let us replace GREDA with PEP, the Population
Instead of squandering resources on economic
development let us invest resources and time into building and enhancing the
population of Galesburg. And enhancing doesn't just mean growing in quantity,
it also means improving the quality of our population. With the changing
American economy we can be much more successful in attracting educated
middle-class families to a quality of life that can compare favorably to that
of not only large urban areas like Chicago or St. Louis but also medium urban
areas like Peoria or the Quad Cities. To do this we must actually deliver the
better quality of life that we claim but have not yet attained in Galesburg.
Unlike GREDA's goals this can be broken down into measurable objectives and
accomplished gradually yielding an identifiable return on the public
For example, an increasing number of professionals
work either from home or smaller satellite offices of large corporations. While
the corporate home office may need to be located in a large urban area neither
these workers nor those satellite offices need to be in this era of the Internet.
Galesburg already compares favorably to many large cities or even their
surrounding suburbs because we are less dense, boast lower housing costs and
reducedincidence of crime and have good schools that could become great schools
with a little effort. Our Amtrak station and reasonable proximity to Chicago
provide us with more reasons to be attractive to Chicago-based corporation or
its professional employees.
To make us more attractive to such such people we must
invest in a better high-speed communications infrastructure withing Galesburg.
It is clear that neither our telephone nor our cable company are in any hurry
to invest in the necessary infrastructure here in Galesburg. A few years ago
opposition from the cable company blocked the creation of a public
communications infrastructure and in hindsight they may have done us a favor.
It is now clear that the failed city cable system was not sufficiently
ambitious and I propose that we revisit this concept with an eye toward
installing a community-wide fiber optic system serving businesses, residences
and public buildings alike. Wifi has been the technological cause celeb
recently yet Galesburg's relatively small size makes a practical and much
better alternative. Galesburg's Achilles' heel of connectivity has always been
the last mile rather than connection to the Internet backbone. Other small
midwestern communities have already accomplished this and we can learn from
The cost of real estate, commercial and residential,
is much more reasonable here than in most any urban areas and employees need
not face an arduous or time-consuming commute. The high cost of home ownership
in many urban areas delays many young families ability to buy their own home.
This is not be true in Galesburg where housing dollars allow less affluent
families to buy a home sooner and more affluent families to buy a nicer home. Time
savings is a huge advantage of living in a small community where it seldom
takes ten minutes to get anywhere
and even a workaholic parent can thus leverage this time savings into more
quality time with their children.
Today nearly all of the best and brightest of our children leave
Galesburg following high school never to return as residents. This brain drain
is a tremendous cost to our community yet it can be reversed by reengineering
Galesburg into an attractive and accommodating location for young professionals
to work from home of small local offices and raise their children in the same
wholesome environment that nurtured them.
Many people have latched onto the idea of making
Galesburg into a retirement community to leverage the advantage of our two
hospitals. This is a good idea with two caveats. First, developing a status as
an attractive retirement community must be just one facet in a multifaceted
plan because Galesburg cannot sustain itself solely as a retirement community.
Secondly, we must not become a retirement community solely for the financially
challenged retirees. Active and financially secure retirees are an attractive
population group we should target but we must remember that this group is
looking for a community offering many of the same kinds of amenities and
services as middle-class families (excepting perhaps schools) and they must
perceive receiving real value from their tax dollars.
Likewise tourism is frequently held out as the
economic savior of Galesburg. The best example of this is the much hyped
Galesburg Railroad Hall of Fame. If you examine successful tourism locations
you will see that the community either was fortunate enough to be located near
a natural tourist attraction like mountains, national forests, oceans, lakes,
etc or private investors have spent hundreds of millions or even billions of
dollars creating man-made attractions. Some prime examples of the later are Las
Vegas, Branson, Missouri and Orlando Florida. Neither condition is now or will
likely ever be applicable to Galesburg. While we do have a variety of much
smaller local attractions they cannot reasonably be expected to ever generate
substantial tourist trade. In the unlikely event that the RRHoF ever gets built
we must be realistic in our projections for its success and no sane person can
reasonably expect it to compare to the Lincoln Museum and Library in
Springfield. Deluding ourselves is simply not in the public self-interest.
However, tourism can and should be a valuable asset to Galesburg and a
worthwhile investment in our local PEP effort. We want outsiders to visit the
community, spend some money here and perhaps discover what a great place this
could be to someday live. Diane Bruning and her staff work very hard and are
perhaps Galesburg's best ambassadors to outside visitors.
Before we finish this essay we must address the very
real challenges facing my proposed PEP effort. For many years Galesburg has
allowed its infrastructure to deteriorate. The ailing water system is merely
the highest priority among many but city officials and residents alike must
accept the responsibility and costs of addressing these needs beginning
immediately. We must abandon the mindset that smaller government is always
better and concentrate on developing efficient and effective government
services along with greater citizen responsibility. Tax dollars will be
required to restore Galesburg to a level where we can begin attracting
middle-class families and like it or not that burden will necessarily fall upon
we residents in the absence of a greater responsible corporate presence. And
when we attract such a presence it must not be through tax incentives that
reduce or eliminate corporate responsibility for maintaining public facilities,
schools, infrastructure and services.
Galesburg's available housing stock will need work as
well. The imposition of meaningful and realistic safety and habitability code
requirements for investment properties must be enacted and enforced. We must
eliminate the profitability of being a slumlord and insure responsible property
maintenance without unnecessarily trampling on the liberties of responsible
property owners. Whatever can be done to assist existing property owners
rehabilitate older housing stock as owner occupied residences should become a
city priority. Perhaps with the creation of a city microloan program to help
finance such work. While it is the proper role of private investment to address
the needs of new housing construction it is also the responsibility of public
officials to encourage such reinvestment citywide.
Galesburg needs to support community arts and culture
as key components of community quality of life along with a range of
recreational facilities and programs, community events and festivals are also
important and worthy of support. This support must be more than just tax
dollars. Individuals and businesses must support such programs with both their
dollars and time. As a community Galesburg must get over its self-conscience
anti-intellectualism and embrace the value of thoughtful discourse and
expression representing a wide array of ideas and feelings, many of which may
well differ from our own. Developing greater tolerance and diversity will be
key metrics in determining the success of this community reinventing itself.
The very concept of this Population Enhancement
Project is that by investing in making Galesburg a better place to live will
pay off immediately for existing residents while simultaneously making the
community more attractive to new residents. This influx of new or returning
residents will bring economic opportunity. This approach is not only totally
open and accountable it is also self-sustaining and permits participation by
the entire community. Given our history of economic development failure what do
we have to loose? Perhaps Galesburg can become a model that others emulate
rather than a recurring anecdote about the negative economic consequences of
the changing American economy.