Alton is a unique city that at the same time shares much in common with scores of other Rust Belt cities, both large and small. Like Alton, they’ve had to deal with a mass exodus of factory jobs. While lost jobs obviously brings many challenges, many of you will be surprised to learn a growing number of these cities similar to us are once again enjoying prosperity and growth. For those of you who know Alton, you might also be surprised to learn Alton is pretty well-positioned to once again prosper, too. What this requires is for us to recognize our assets and opportunities, and adapt to a changing world by properly leveraging what we have; things that Alton has not done well in recent decades. We have to change that.
If one studies these Rust Belt cities, as I have, you’ll see that the cities prospering today pursued tactics quite different than those still struggling. Alton’s strategies have generally followed what other still-struggling cities have done: keep doing what we’ve always done and hope for a better tomorrow. We should not be surprised that we’re still struggling. The key to success is remarkably similar to that employed by those trying to sell a home, or even a consumer product. Find out what people want, and give it to them.
There is a definite recipe cities can follow to give people what they want in a city. It’s been tried and true in dozens of cities across America. Find the best recipes, add a little creativity, and Alton’s recipe is complete. Expectations have risen over time, but people don’t expect streets paved with gold or a Taj Mahal on every corner. They simply want a good quality of life.
Thankfully, Alton is blessed with so many of the right ingredients. But we’ve generally failed to develop and use them properly, or worse, not realized their value at all. We’ve served up cabbage soup for 50 years because it was once popular decades ago. Even though, over time, more and more people have been wanting a tasty bowl of chili or fresh pasta soup. Our response has been, “see, nobody wants what we have,” instead of using ingredients we already have to offer something people want.
Enough of the metaphors. Many of us have, after 50 years of decline, gotten really “down” on our area. That’s quite understandable; decline is all most of us know. What many of us don’t know is that, for its first 150 years, Alton was a progressive, prosperous and growing city. What changed?
In my columns, I’ll focus primarily on Alton. It’s where I live, the Riverbend’s core city, our heart. We need a good heart for the rest of us, the area as a whole, to become healthy. Importantly, what applies to Alton usually applies to the entire Riverbend, even though Alton is quite different than Godfrey or Wood River.
Getting the right recipe mentioned above will determine whether our future has growth or decline. However, getting people to consider a new recipe can sometimes be a hurdle because it involves change. Minds literally can be changed in an instant: easy to do in theory, but sometimes quite difficult in reality. It all depends on attitude. Our Midwestern attitudes value consistency and we’re wary of change. This may have served us well during parts of our city’s nearly 200-year history, but you’d be surprised to learn how often it has not. And in today’s fast-changing world, it’s becoming more of a liability with every passing day.
I was born and raised here, part of a family that first moved to Alton more than 160 years ago. As someone who loves this area more than anyone I know, I’d never advocate change for change’s sake. However, I’ve noticed a growing number of our citizens are realizing the status quo is simply not an option anymore. I agree; we must adapt. Thankfully, we have options. Let’s explore them!