It’s no secret that I’m optimistic about Alton’s future.
Therefore, you might be surprised by the tone of this column. However, my optimism has always been conditional — emphasizing that real changes, focused on making Alton the most attractive place it can possibly be for people and businesses, is an important prerequisite to creating a bright future for our city. That change hasn’t yet happened.
To many, “change” means uncertainty and risk. On the flip side of the coin, lack of change means the somewhat miserable status quo will be perpetuated. This is something we should never forget. Obviously, change for change’s sake is just as foolish, if not more so, than expecting change to come from the status quo. Change must be carefully planned, and the status quo should only be maintained if things are perfect.
The recent cascade of business closing announcements here reminds us how fragile Alton’s economy is, even during the best of times. And these are the best of times. The national economy is well into the longest economic expansion since the 1990s, even gaining strength lately, now growing at a healthy annual rate of 3.5 percent.
The last recession ended in June of 2009, yet 7 1/2 years later, Alton is still a long way from recovery, and by some measures we’re actually worse off than just 3 years ago, despite accelerating growth elsewhere. While nationwide home prices reached record highs in 2016, here in Alton they remain significantly below what they were 10 years ago, and have actually fallen since 2013, according to realtor.com data for Alton.
I regularly hear complaints about the lack of good jobs here, and for good reason. The unemployment rate in much of the nation is near historic lows, with rates nationwide, in Illinois, in Madison County, and for the St. Louis metropolitan area as a whole ranging between about 4 percent and 5 percent, all significantly better than they’ve been in years. Our nation is enjoying the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in its history. While Alton’s job picture has also improved, our unemployment rate remains at a whopping 7 percent, much higher than the surrounding area . . . even significantly higher than that of Granite City, which has been struggling lately from massive layoffs at the US Steel plant located there. While Alton’s unemployment has gradually subsided since the national recession ended in 2009, its current unemployment rate has essentially not improved over the past year, while the unemployment rates for Madison County, the St. Louis metro area, the state of Illinois, and the country as a whole, have for the most part continued to improve during the same period. Much of the area surrounding Alton has almost completely recovered to its pre-recession unemployment rate, with some areas approaching what is essentially “full employment.” Yet Alton still has a long way to go, with its unemployment rate having fallen only about 2/3 of the way. In other words, Alton is falling behind and is struggling, even during these good economic times.
You’ve probably heard our mayor brag about 200 new business licenses issued in Alton during his first term; however, what’s not mentioned is that his list of “new” businesses includes those existing businesses that were issued “new” licenses because they changed their name or had ownership changes. The mayor also failed to mention the large number of existing businesses that have suffered from slow sales, were forced to sell, downsized or closed. Indeed, despite the mayor’s claims implying that there are many more businesses today versus when he took office in May of 2013, in reality, there are about 85 FEWER businesses in Alton today than there were in 2013!
Alton would benefit greatly from well-planned changes focused on improving our appeal to businesses, residents and visitors. Changes that address the real, root causes of our perpetually anemic local economy, that has continued under mayor Walker’s watch.
A popular definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting different results, or to try a few minor changes and expect dramatic improvements. We’ve given the status quo plenty of time to work, and things are clearly not getting much better. If places like Edwardsville, St. Charles and Webster Groves are doing “A,” but Alton is doing “B,” doesn’t it make sense to consider doing “A,” even if it requires a few difficult adjustments? Yet, we’re continuing to do “B,” and we just voted to continue doing “B” for another four years. I suppose the people of Alton have given up before they even tried, and hvae concluded that this is as good as it gets, and we should never expect to become prosperous again. This truly makes me sad, that we’d vote to continue the status quo, when the status quo is clearly so disappointing. Did anyone really believe mayor Walker’s story line implying that Alton’s better than ever, thanks to him?
In the last few years, Alton has drifted slowly upward, buoyed by the rising tide of strong national and regional economic growth. What’s going to happen when the tide inevitably subsides and the recession sends Alton’s fragile economy tumbling once again?
Despite our recent struggles, I remain convinced that Alton is still poised to become an incredible, growing place, because it has good people and numerous treasures just waiting to help create Alton’s renaissance. We don’t have to risk everything and reinvent the wheel. We only need to learn from successful ideas that have been implemented elsewhere, and have the courage and creativity to adapt them to Alton, as well. They say “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” but in Alton’s case, we might say, “There’s a way . . . now we need the will.”
It’s time, Alton. It’s time.