Desperately seeking leadership


A combination of events has led us to pen this editorial. It is becoming all too clear that the economic problems facing Galesburg and this area are not unique as our nationÕs economy seems to be nearing collapse. The problems facing towns like Galesburg were but the leading edge of a national crisis and the real question is not whether our country can weather this storm but whether Galesburg can.

Millions of manufacturing jobs have left this country of which the thousands of local manufacturing jobs lost are but a drop in the proverbial bucket. It should be evident to all but the most dense of us that attracting meaningful numbers of replacement manufacturing jobs to this area is at best unlikely. Along with many of those lost jobs have gone our neighbors as we witnessed a population flight out of Galesburg and Knox County. There is little doubt in my mind that when the census is completed in two years that the population of Galesburg will have fallen to about 30,000 or less and that the county population will be lucky to stay above 50,000.

I have been preaching for some time now that this hemorrhaging of population is this areaÕs biggest challenge. While at first glance it may seem like a chicken-and-egg type of problem the fact is that without an available, skilled workforce in place no significant business is going to locate here. As our population and household income declines in both real and inflation-adjusted dollars, along with the attractiveness of our demographics, the same is true for new retailers.

The survival of this community depends upon retaining what remains of our population base and attracting new residents; preferably educated and professional middle-class adults with kids but there is no reason to believe at this point that this result is likely. We can continue the self-deception of telling ourselves all we want about how great and unique Galesburg is but the facts tell a very different story.

This community has plodded along for too many years under the delusion that we were but an undiscovered gem ignoring all too real problems, deferring maintenance and upkeep by underfunding services, and letting once-manageable problems grow into daunting and expensive crises we are unprepared to confront. Our children canÕt wait to leave and only come back for the occasional visit. Few of those with options will voluntarily choose to remain or return to Galesburg yet somehow we believe that some successful outsiders will somehow discover and save us from ourselves.

I am tired of pointing out the foolish stupidity and unreasonable expectations that guide local economic development efforts and frankly the failings of GREDA are very much a symptom of the greater underlying and pernicious malady that has long festered in Galesburg. As a community we are seemingly unable to look back upon ourselves for a realistic appraisal of our strengths and weaknesses. We disdain realistic community planning and selfishly cling to the notion that taxes are something other people pay.

Galesburg is so inertia-bound that we struggle over even the most obvious small changes and most real change must be forced upon us against our will. The quality of community leadership has steadily declined as the best people simply choose to no longer participate. It is a thankless job to run for city council or county board and too many who would make strong leaders are unwilling to face the frustration of trying to implement necessary changes.

Sure, many good people serve on committees and we have a long history of citizen participation in such committees because they are safe. No one really expects radical changes to come out and the need for consensus assures that recommendations are always too little, too late, obvious yet unimplemented. Think back over recent years at any major accomplishment and you can see it only happened because conditions or outside forces made it inevitable. We were among the last counties to form a health department; we built a new jail only reluctantly and after the myriad problems at the former jail could no longer be dismissed; the city is finally addressing long standing problems with our water system caused by inattention and deferred maintenance; and we did absolutely nothing while it became clearer and clearer that our economic reliance almost solely upon big manufacturing plants was tragically misplaced.

Throughout all this there has been much gnashing of teeth and complaints about how things could go so bad in so short a time. But it wasnÕt a short time and anyone who cared to pay attention could see that the Galesburg area was bound to lose thousands of jobs and population alike yet we never admitted to such observations publicly and still pretend that everything was so unforeseen. During the time I have lived in this town there has been very little evidence of solid leadership and when glimmers of hope for such leadership appeared they were promptly snuffed out.

Well, folks, we are nearing the point of no return and if someone with the strength of character and vision to steer this community in a new, more promising direction doesnÕt appear very soon it may become too late. We no longer have time for embarrassingly inept local leaders or a pointless search for consensus that never arrives. And as a community we wonÕt seek a savior out — such a leader must force themselves upon the Galesburg area.

We need someone of accomplishment, who is unafraid of ruffling the feathers of the complacent majority while possessing the charisma and persuasiveness to move the people toward a new direction and attract new residents to Galesburg with compelling promises of a better tomorrow. In short, Galesburg needs a benevolent dictator with a broader and futuristic world view plus the ability to communicate that vision in a manner that motivates us to embrace change and greater personal responsibility in our community

The upcoming municipal election next April provides an excellent opportunity for someone to step forward and assume leadership of Galesburg. On paper the job of mayor under the council-manager form of government is fairly limited in real political power and therefore can be an exercise in frustration for even the best-intentioned, making it a thankless job. To be effective under these trying circumstances, the power to get things done must come from the inherent character of the leader herself and the ability to inspire confidence and support from both other elected officials and the public alike.

The ability to chart a new course and implement change is more important than rapid success and even if some things do not pan out, simply getting this community to welcome change itself will be a major accomplishment. We simply cannot afford to continue pissing away scant resources pursuing existing policies that have long since proven fruitless.

    Norm Winick & Mike Kroll