Reader observations for a better Galesburg

by Mike Kroll

We challenged Zephyr readers to get involved in this community and they continue to rise to the occasion. Last week we included one resident's idea to capitalize on the size and breadth of local arts, an observation that caused many to wonder why they hadn't recognized the phenomenon. This week we want to summarize a variety of other ideas and observations from our readers. Many have come from multiple sources and a number have been submitted either anonymously or asking that we shield their identity. While noone has ever accused this newspaper of being shy it does appear that many contributors do not wish to be acknowledged.

A common observation by readers is that we should promote Galesburg as an economical place to live. Compared to large cities like Chicago and its suburbs or even many other smaller cities in Illinois or elsewhere Galesburg does offer a very affordable quality of life. At around $60-75,000 a typical home in Galesburg is but a third the price of one in Chicago-land and tens of thousands less than those in Peoria or the Quad Cities. More startling is that for the price of a middle-class home in Chicago-land you can purchase a luxurious Galesburg home. The median price for a new Chicago-area single family home is currently about $270,000 and only fifteen percent less for an existing home at $230,000.

Chicago and its suburbs are a "sizzling" real estate market right now but talk to any Galesburg Realtor and they will tell you that local real estate sales are hardly depressed. Given some of the recent bad economic news local home prices are down one or two percent according to Galesburg Assessor Darrell Lovell but the number of sales is actually up. Local home buyers, recognizing available bargains, are snapping up mid-range and lower priced Galesburg homes. Upper-end homes take longer to sell and ofter are selling for less than the previous owner expected but they too are selling. Sure, low interest rates help but as one Realtor told me, low rates aren't unique to this area.

But it isn't just the cost of homes that make Galesburg an attractive place to live. City services are downright cheap. Compare what a local family pays for water, sewer and trash to Chicago, Peoria, Rockford or Springfield and you will see what a bargain we enjoy. However, as more than one person has pointed out, the private monopoly utilities (cable tv, electric, gas & telephone) are not local bargains. And despite frequent complaining the effective property tax rate for Galesburg compares favorably to many other Illinois communities outside of the Chicago area according to the Illinois Department of Revenue.

City 2000 Rate Rank (530)

Bloomington 1.99 236

Carbondale 2.54 35

Danville 2.33 87

Decatur 2.17 141

Dekalb 2.42 62

Dixon 2.43 57

Freeport 2.72 19

Galesburg 2.01 222

Havana 2.95 6

Joliet 2.01 221

Kankakee 2.87 10

Lincoln 2.30 94

Macomb 2.14 151

Mattoon 2.51 38

Mt. Vernon 2.29 96

Ottawa 2.73 18

Peoria 2.17 144

Pontiac 2.46 49

Quincy 2.00 226

Rock Island 2.19 135

Rockford 2.98 2

Springfield 2.14 149

Sterling 2.30 92

While this data is a three years out of date it is the latest available from the state. It should be noted that property taxes are calculated somewhat differently in the immediate Chicago-land area due the the much higher property values and higher density of commercial and industrial properties. Many have noted that Galesburg is financially attractive to retirees from the Chicago area because of our much lower overall cost of living. An added bonus to retirees is the infusion of additional retirement money one can pocket by swapping a high-priced Chicago area home for a more affordable Galesburg house.

It has been observed that Galesburg is a great bedroom community for those who work in Peoria or the Quad-Cities. It is an easy commute and very convenient for families where spouses commute in opposite directions. Most city commuters travel a fraction of the distance in more time and with much more congestion and frustration.

Many people who love Galesburg also recognize that there is ample room for improvement. Most see this city's proud heritage as a distinct plus and wish that more was done to preserve and maintain older homes and buildings. The condition of vacancy of a number of once proud downtown buildings concerns our readers. Particular note has been directed at the former O.T. Johnson's building that has been allowed to deteriorate greatly. Some have suggested that a group of local investors purchase and renovate this old building into loft-like commercial space. One reader suggested that this could be a much better location for the non-industrial business incubator. What if the city committed to a longterm lease of some or all of this space following remodeling by private investors and then sublet space to fledgling business ventures? The large connected building immediately behind and facing Ferris Street could be demolished to make room for more parking.

Noting this town's history of "convenient" fires one woman says she is very worried that the O.T. Johnson building left to further deteriorate will be likely fire victim therefore endangering its neighbors. Such a fire could be a great tragedy to this community. A different suggestion for the O.T. Johnson Building is to use the ground floor for a combined coffee shop bookstore remodeling the upper floors into loft apartments. Sort of a "Friends who read in Galesburg." Many people point to the loft project on Seminary street and wonder why something similar can't be done along Main Street.

Speaking of downtown, it would seem that city officials are the only ones who don't recognize the need for more downtown parking. One popular suggestion has been for the demolition of the former Knox Laundry to create new parking north of the Bondi Building. Since such a lot would be of special value to both Trinity Lutheran Church and the Bondi Building this need not be a public project but rather a cooperative one between two private entities with compatible interests.

All the talk of expanding the Railroad Museum and creating the Railroad Hall of Fame has excited more than a few readers into dreaming of new locations. Some have noted that the building that presently houses the Discovery Depot is considerably larger that that museum is ever likely to require and wonder why the upper floors couldn't be used by these railroad entities if money could be found to install an elevator. One couple commented that building a new museum in Colton Park would eliminate attractive green space while more than likely creating yet another architecturally nondescript addition to downtown. "We already have too many newer building that just don't fit downtown while we either destroy or let beautiful existing building remain unused."

Two retired railroaders have taken an entirely different view of this museum concept. They agree that constructing a museum in Colton Park is not a good idea but suggest a novel alternative-- the Armory on North Broad Street. The idea is for city officials to request the deed for the present Armory once its replacement is finished on North Linwood Road and offer an attractive lease to the Railroad Museum and the Railroad Hall of Fame. The large main floor could house a few pieces of rolling stock that in turn could be better preserved protected from the weather.

Getting away from downtown a number of people believe that more should be invested into parks and recreation. Neither the persistent dream of a soccer complex nor of the $100,000 donated by the Thompson family toward such a project has escaped our readership. While no one expects the city to invest millions of dollars into this project a group of dreamers would like the city to purchase a parcel of suitable land that can be developed into suitable soccer fields largely with volunteer assistance. Of course there is no unanimity regarding the location of such a new park but most believe suitable locations could be purchased for considerably less than once proposed site north of Hawthorne Center.

One older couple stopped in my shop to tell me that many a good idea has percolated up from local residents only to be ignored by local officials until it was forgotten. That many of the same ideas resurface again and again is a given in Galesburg they noted because city officials are too caught up in petty bickering to take note of the recycling of ideas. "There is little or no leadership around here and those we elect seem to grow more and more shortsighted with each passing year. Once upon a time there were people in Galesburg brimming with ideas and the strength of character to make them happen-- today the City Council acts like a bunch of spoiled kids without discipline."