Roger's not dodging the tough questions

by Mike Kroll

Here it is July Fourth and we were told to expect the new downtown streetscape project to have already begun yet nothing has so far occurred. What's the hold-up? According to the new Executive Director of the Galesburg Downtown Council, Roger Callahan, the earliest we will see any work on streetscape is next spring. It's an ambitious multi-million dollar project Callahan inherited from his predecessor, Ross Tighlman, that has already been scaled back once.

''At this point in time I just don't know enough of the details of the streetscape plan to say too much,'' explained Callahan. ''When the streetscape was originally let out for bids, no one responded and that is why nothing has taken place this summer. On Wednesday, July 11th the streetscape steering committee will meet in the Commerce Center Building at 4pm to discuss where the project now stands. We are now planning to rebid the streetscape project on September 21st.''

The streetscape project has been controversial from its inception. Funded in part by a state grant and matching dollars from the City of Galesburg, the goal is to revitalize the exterior appearance of downtown Galesburg. As it now stands, the plan calls for replacing almost half of the aging sidewalks and the installation of decorative light poles, benches and signage reminiscent of the 1890s.

Asked about the absence of bidders, Callahan replied: ''I just don't know for sure but I surmise that there were just too many unanswered questions about the details of the plan. The potential bidders didn't feel comfortable enough to participate. We will get into all that at next week's meeting and I hope to familiarize myself with more of the plan's specifics. To be honest, I only recently learned that there was a streetscape steering committee and I'm hoping we can work together with downtown businesses and the City to insure that this project gets going next March or April. I'd like to see it completed by the end of August or early September.''

By mere appearance only, one might take Callahan for an accountant. Here is a man with a Ph.D. and years of experience as a consultant who has taken on the directorship of the Downtown Council. Before moving to Galesburg, he spent the past eight years in St. Charles working as an independent consultant. Before that he worked as a project consultant for one of the biggest companies in the field, Anderson Consulting. As impertinent as it may seem, I was compelled to ask why someone so apparently overqualified wanted this job.

''It wasn't the pay that drew me to this job; it was the potential to have a lasting impact on my hometown that made this an attractive opportunity. Beyond that, I must confess that I found the life of an independent consultant to be variable financially. At this point in my life, my family and I needed the assurance of a regular consistent paycheck and being able to do that in my hometown was a welcome bonus.''

Callahan is modest and soft-spoken, characteristics not that common in his professional peers. The former Silver Streak basketball player who is an unabashed fan of his legendary coach John Thiel, is quick to point out that he spent most of his time on the bench. ''Back in those day where a ticket to a Streaks game was impossible to get, at least I had one of the best seats in the gym!''

One of the first things Callahan did when he got situated here was begin a walking tour of the downtown. He not only stopped in to businesses and introduced himself, he actually paused long enough to talk to individual business owners and managers about downtown Galesburg. Although he cautions that he has only met just over half of the downtown businesses (by his own estimation) he has made a positive impression on many. Not only does he appear to listen, he really listens, and in a number of instances has taken steps to address comments made to him.

''I learned at least three things from those I have already talked to downtown. First, the look and feel of downtown Galesburg is very important to nearly all of them. The most common comments focused on appearance issues such as litter, lighting, signage and such. Second was the importance of our downtown maintenance program. This follows the first point. Since it is so important that downtown Galesburg be an attractive and inviting place it is our duty to see that litter is picked up, plantings are properly cared for, and trash removed. The businesses downtown are my customers and these are the ways they will judge my performance.''

''Finally, these conversations have reinforced my own believe in the critical importance of communication. I want to draw out more involvement by a wider variety of business people in the downtown area. I am well aware of the fact that the cumulative knowledge of my customers greatly exceeds my own. We need to tap them for guidance and new ideas. And we in turn need to spur them into improving their own businesses. Nothing will enhance the success of the downtown as a whole as much as the greater business success of our individual members.''

To this end, Callahan is planning to offer free training sessions to downtown business owners and managers in partnership with the Illinois Main Street Program. This statewide program has already developed a series of training programs that Callahan hopes to customize to the unique needs of Galesburg by this coming fall.

''In my experience three factors always emerge as critical to success: skills, knowledge and attitude. The hardest of these three to develop is attitude. The attitude I dread most is apathy and indifference. To help downtown Galesburg continue to succeed, we need to keep our businesses involved in the community and contributing on a regular basis to the leadership of the downtown business district. There is always a resistance to change but I since that it is much greater here in Galesburg. I want to address this.''

''If we are to achieve greater success in downtown Galesburg in the coming years, certain things must be done and some things must be changed. It is simply not reasonable to expect the next ten years to be that much better if we continue to do exactly the same kinds of things that have led us to where we are today. We need to be honest with ourselves about what has and hasn't worked in the past and have the vision and commitment to learn from and correct these things.''

''I would really like to see more done with the façade renovation program. We presently budget $25,000 per year for this, which is just not sufficient from my viewpoint, but even worse is that we won't spend that much this fiscal year. One of the best things I believe can be done is to push for greater participation in the façade program. We need to find ways to encourage some color consistency without sacrificing the unique character of the various businesses.''

''I also think it would be great if we created more reasons for people to congregate downtown. There is a real opportunity here to tie into the Orpheum Theatre and other artistic and entertainment opportunities available downtown. It is important that we schedule more events and at a variety of times; weekdays, evenings and weekends. We should also work to restore greater celebration of holiday themes downtown. For instance I think it would look amazing if we could string Christmas lights along the top edges of downtown buildings. This would be a big project but one that would create a unique and attractive nighttime 'skyline' in Galesburg.''

Callahan is clearly full of eagerness and wants to implement change in a town characterized by inertia and leaders whose vision seldom seems to go beyond next Tuesday. Only time will tell whether Roger Callahan will be able to inspire his downtown flock to new heights.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online July 3, 2001

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