Alternative paths to economic development

By Mike Kroll

I suspect I sound like a broken record but I fear too few are listening. The first priority for Galesburg has to be to retain and expand and enhance our population. A population base is absolutely necessary to our survival but the characteristics of that population will be a major factor in how well this community recovers. Many believe that first you must have jobs to attract people and there is some truth to this, however if we continue to loose population at this rate the viability of the community decreases at a faster rate than the population.

A critical mass of people is necessary regardless of their demographic or economic characteristics. A few years ago former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, recognizing a steady population loss in his state implemented policies that he hoped would make Iowa an “immigration magnet” that was not well received by his constituency despite his success in increasing Iowa's population by over five percent during the 1990's despite the fact that Vilsack's plan was never completely implemented. Large numbers of Iowans fought the plan even as it literally saved numerous dying rural communities with an influx of Mexican immigrants who came to work in meat packing plants across the state.

Many of these immigrants arrived illegally and opponents saw them as a costly burden but just as such immigrants can claim credit for keeping neighboring Monmouth afloat through the labor, commerce and taxes the same was true in numerous similar Iowa communities. Without the Farmland immigrant labor force the only significant economic entity left in Monmouth would be Monmouth College for without the immigrant labor Farmland would be history. Contrary to anti-immigration opponents claims families with children are absolutely mandatory to the survival of any community even if those families are poor, unskilled or even illegal.

Without children the economics of a quality school system deteriorate and without good schools you simply cannot retain much less attract educated middle-class families that we need to develop a sustainable economic base. Certainly we need to focus on such families and just as importantly on reclaiming our college-educated youth as they choose a place to settle and raise their families. Quality of life, good schools, community amenities and an enlightened and progressive political leadership are essential to building a population so critical to our survival. Cutting city staff and services to reduce the local tax burden may be politically attractive today but it undermines this community’s future just as a failure to make proper community investments in the past helped put us into our current situation.

Our concern for maintaining population has to extend beyond the boundaries of Galesburg because survival is truly a regional challenge. The silly and wasteful competition between area communities and our seeming inability to cooperate for mutual benefit must be overcome. The need for cooperation also extends to township and county government. Galesburg officials must learn to work and play well with these other government entities and we must find economically beneficial ways to pool resources and cooperate for the betterment of the greater area.

Leadership and involvement by people with an economic stake in this community and the backbone to stand up to obstructionists who balk at change will be essential to our future. This leadership goes beyond just elected officials to include community leaders outside of government but we must begin to see better qualified candidates run for local office. There is no nice way to put this but our present city council and county board are embarrassments, our economic development officials are clueless and most of the rest of us are content to simply sit back and bitch. Criticism is our right but only constructive criticism is helpful while just plain bitching only exacerbates the divisions within our community. And as citizens we must remember that we elect officials for their good judgment and often times the greater good is served only at the expense of tax dollars or the inconvenience of the few. It is important that we elect leaders who understand that their role is to develop a vision and set the course, even if such actions occasionally stir up emotions by some groups of voters.

We need to begin making substantial investments in this community and attracting our neighbors to likewise invest in the future of Galesburg. This must be an effort that extends beyond the city and county boarders to become truly regional in scope. If we cannot convince ourselves and our neighbors to invest in the future of Galesburg why should we expect outsiders to do so? If new skilled manufacturing jobs are to be created in the area we must start small and invest in them ourselves. As a community we need to encourage and support entrepreneurs with the ambition and drive to succeed in startup endeavors, particularly those with historical ties to the area. Nurturing a growing number of small to medium but growing businesses is actually far better than fruitlessly searching for the big outside operation that we can attempt to lure here.

We sit amidst some of the most fertile farm ground in the world and we need to discover new ways to leverage this asset for the economic revitalization of our community. I am convinced that for manufacturing to return to Galesburg to any meaningful way some of it will be based on an agricultural crop (other than corn and soybeans) that is grown around Galesburg. During World War II western Illinois was the leading producer of industrial hemp but short sighted public policy in Springfield blocks research and investment in either this crop or its many potential products.  Agricultural researchers at the University of Illinois and elsewhere have attempted to pursue promising work with hemp only to be hindered by politicians but this is but one of many agricultural products that could be grown alongside corn and soybeans to create new economic opportunities.

While the railroad is currently a major economic asset for Galesburg we must recognize that it too is subject to changing economic circumstances. The explosive growth of both inter modal shipping and unit trains devoted to a single commodity has come at the expense of more traditional and heterogeneous rail shipments that necessitate classification yards like the one here. The time will come when this will lead to a decreased use of the Galesburg yard yet our geography makes it unlikely that we will actually see a major or intermediate inter modal operation ever locate here. And if it did I am told by people who understand this business far better than I that our vaunted Logistics Park would be a poor location. Much better and more likely locations would be near the Cameron rail interchange or southwest of the current rail yard if such an operation ever becomes feasible locally.

Of potentially greater significance is the opportunity for a return to reliance upon regional passenger rail travel as gasoline prices and a collapsing air travel system force us to relearn the value of passenger rail. Convenient and available rail connections to Chicago already exist as a major Galesburg advantage we have yet to leverage and the potential exists to create new passenger rail links east and west as well. When Galesburg alderman Mike Lummis first made this suggestion last year many dismissed it as unrealistic but I believe he was truly on to something. Many of our neighbors already commute to Peoria or the Quad Cities to work and the rising price of gas may make it too costly for them to continue living here. There is a future for Galesburg as a bedroom community to these larger cities, but only if it remains economical to the employees.

 It is now feasible for a satellite office of a medium or large Chicago-based firm to locate in Galesburg just as easily as in the suburbs and at lower cost in a less congested and family friendly environment. We need to be actively recruiting such white-collar jobs to Galesburg and creating such jobs with local investment in suitable office space and amenities. While it is unlikely that downtown Galesburg will ever again be home to national or regional large retailers it is quite possible that it can once again be home to thousands of office workers if we create favorable conditions to support this. With increased numbers of downtown employees the need for better parking and supporting retail will also increase.

One key infrastructure that must be developed soon if we are to attract such satellite offices or work-from-home professionals is a widely available, reliable and inexpensive high-speed data network. Our two existing private firms, the cable and telephone companies, have proven unable to unwilling to deliver such services on the necessary scale or at a competitive price or with sufficient reliability. It can cost as much for just the last mile connectivity in Galesburg as it does to obtain a complete high capacity Internet connection in many other places. In today's world knowledge workers can be physically located almost anywhere if they have the proper communications and business support services available.

Like rivers, the presence of a university would be a major asset to this area that we just don't possess. Certainly Knox College is here but it is also almost totally disengaged from the local community. Declining numbers of Knox graduates choose to remain in Galesburg (for obvious reasons) but more importantly both as an institution and individually as faculty and staff the people of Knox have demonstrated an almost total disinterest in participating in community issues. The people of Knox represent the single largest block of thoughtful and educated people in this community yet most exist as if on an island unto itself. They don't participate in the local political or economic dialog and they do not offer the talents of their faculty, staff and students to help address some of the daunting problems facing Galesburg despite the college's obvious stake in this community's success.

If Knox will not participate it is incumbent upon us to recruit such interest from other universities in this state who possess the knowledge and resources that can help Galesburg adapt and reinvent itself. It is much better to invest in partnerships with educational institutions than continue to squander money on consultants of dubious value. Galesburg can invite faculty and students with necessary and relevant skills to assist us in redeveloping and redefining this community. The city and the county should establish continuous programs of paid internship opportunities to advanced undergraduate or graduate students to supplement or enhance existing staff efforts or to help evaluate new ideas. For example, such interns could provide Galesburg director of economic development with a cost-effective staff or provide Knox County with people to help handle administrative chores like purchasing or grant writing.

These are just a few key ideas and barely scratch the surface of what we must do to save Galesburg but the most important point of this commentary is that we recognize and abandon the failed economic development strategies currently being pursued. We must discover community leadership that is open to new approaches and able to take responsible risks. Leadership that will not crumble in the face of small band of loud opposition as they seek to rebuild the services and infrastructure of this community. And residents must refuse to accept continued complacency in the face of crisis.