(this editorial column was originally published in the fall of 2016, in Advantage News)
The fall is probably my favorite season. The beautiful display of fall colors, especially when viewed while driving down the River Road, is something us Altonians often take for granted. We also take for granted the fact that our area is one of the best places to view bald eagles — during the winter — and to see flowering trees during the spring. And our area is, or could be, one of the best places in the Midwest to boat, canoe, kayak, bird-watch, rock-climb, walk, jog or take a bike ride. We have the perfect geography for some pretty awesome trails, but precious few have been built. This area is also a great place to drive around, enjoying the old architecture, rich history and hilly brick streets. We are a great place to visit, and a wonderful place to call home.
The things I mention here, which may not seem like much of a big deal, are actually huge opportunities for our area, especially if they were fully developed.
The assets Alton has are becoming very popular nationwide, especially among younger Millennials, who are our future. Shows such as “Fixer Upper” on HGTV have gained huge audiences as old homes and neighborhoods have increased in popularity. Growing numbers of former industrial river towns across the heartland, similar to Alton, have learned the river is increasingly becoming a desirable place to live near, especially when the city sits on hills, with stunning views overlooking the river. Those hills and bluffs also provide opportunities for young adults interested in more challenging active lifestyle pursuits, such as those I mentioned above. And if these old river towns happen to be located close to a major metropolitan area, then they have the best of both worlds — a safe, small-town feel with big city amenities nearby.
I have just described Alton, and almost nobody has all of these amenities, as we do. These priceless assets are just waiting to be leveraged for a real renaissance that would benefit the entire area. Alton is perfectly positioned for a turnaround.
A growing number of other “Rust Belt” cities similar to Alton have already realized that these trends are in their favor and have begun their own turnarounds. The media has noticed, with articles such as “A Rust Belt Revival” in The Economist, “The Rust Belt Roars Back from the Dead” in The Daily Beast and CNN’s “America’s Best Small Town Comebacks” series highlighting cities such as Paducah, Ky. Tiny Paducah, a city similar in size and demographics to Alton, but in the middle of nowhere, has received global recognition and $100 million in new local investment, largely because of its Artist Relocation Program, something a citizens group tried to get started here a few years ago. I should know; I was part of that frustrated citizens group that was ignored by city hall.
Granted, there was a different mayor in charge back when we were trying to get city hall to wake up and realize the huge opportunity that an artists relocation program presented. However, the person who quashed our dreams was Phil Roggio, former director of the city’s “planning” department (building, zoning and housing). He is a prime example of someone who doesn’t “get it.” While he’s a local good ol’ boy, to his credit, he does have a degree in planning. The problem is, it seems like he hasn’t bothered to keep himself up-to-date since he graduated from planning school roughly 40 years ago, back when enclosed malls and demolitions of historic properties were still considered a good idea. Our current mayor, Brant Walker, got into office in part on the promise that he’d get rid of Mr. Roggio. Walker did get rid of Mr. Roggio, but then proceeded to bring him back as a very highly-paid consultant, after promoting the deputy director in that department to replace him. So now we have both a planning department head AND an expensive consultant (Mr. Roggio), who still doesn’t “get it.”
The fact that Alton is better positioned for a renaissance than most Rust Belt cities simply confirms the notion that a change in direction is warranted. Over the past year, as the mayor’s re-election time approached, we saw in Alton a rash of street repairs and minor improvements to our parks. The people of Alton apparently forgot that relatively little got done in Alton during the first three years of Mr. Walker’s term. They re-elected Mr. Walker to another four years, thereby getting our mayor that much closer to being “set for life” with a cushy state pension plan, all funded by the Alton taxpayers. Hopefully Mr. Walker will return the favor this time by finally taking Alton down the right path, because it certainly hasn’t been going in the right direction during the last 4 years, IMHO.
It’s time to take things to an entirely different level, by focusing on dramatic improvements in our quality of life. This is definitely something that Alton is capable of doing, but it requires a steady flow of improvements going forward, not just haphazard projects here and there. We need an up-to-date comprehensive plan where citizen input helps focus our spending in the right places, given our city’s tight budget. However, the prospect of this happening is dim, given the mayor’s comments. During the election season, Mr. Walker made clear his opinion of comprehensive plans. He thinks that having a plan is a waste of money, even though it can focus spending and is an opportunity for invaluable citizen input.
Alton is poised have a bright future, if we head down the right path. This needs to happen soon, if we want a renaissance. Hopefully our leaders will realize this, too.