River-town renaissance?

Rising tide lifts all boats, especially along the Mississippi

 A water tower in Quincy, IL - Photo: Zachary Sigelko

A water tower in Quincy, IL - Photo: Zachary Sigelko

By Ted Cox

Former state Sen. Denny Jacobs recalled how dire things looked when he served as mayor of East Moline in the ‘70s, before he ran for the General Assembly.

“We were probably the city that had the biggest number of employees lost,” he said, not just from layoffs at John Deere in Moline, but International Harvester in Rock Island and other Quad Cities manufacturing firms troubled by industrial change.

“We were fortunate in that era to have a lot of grants made available by the federal government — economic-development grants,” Jacobs said. “It helped us at least look like we were keeping our heads above water.”

Literally, in at least one case. A levee was built along the Mississippi River, “so we don’t flood anymore,” Jacobs said. “That was a construction project where everyone looked at it and said, ‘Things are happening.’”

They also put in sidewalks, “so kids can walk to school,” he added. “We didn’t have sidewalks So instead of kids walking in the street, they could walk on the sidewalks.”

In many ways, things seem just as dire today, with many pointing to how Illinois is losing both business and residents to other states. Yet, the answers just might be the same as they were in those bygone eras, when government projects not only put people to work, but created something of lasting value, like the impressive Civilian Conservation Corps building at the Black Hawk Historic Site in Rock Island, or the CCC-constructed log cabins at White Pines in Mount Morris, or the lodge at Pere Marquette State Park outside Alton, to name just a few prominent examples beloved by Illinoisans.

The government needs work done on many decaying structures, while many people want to be put to work. Those two undeniable facts have come to dovetail in a call for guaranteed “jobs for all,” an idea gaining traction in mainstream politics. Independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the former presidential candidate from Vermont, recently followed through on that concept with a proposal to grant a job with a $15 minimum wage, and health care, to any American worker "who wants or needs one." 

In fact, just up the Mississippi on the Illinois shoreline, Savanna Mayor Chris Lain took office a year ago, and immediately identified infrastructure improvements as a way to invest in both the town and its people.

Broken sidewalks were repaired, crosswalks and parking spaces repainted, and new planters and trash cans installed on Main Street in the Savanna downtown. There are now grants for a new tourist center and bike trailheads.

“We want to be a place when people drive through, that they see it and say, ‘This is a cute town. We’ve got to stop,’” Lain said.

“Last year we had five new businesses open on Main Street,” he added. “And that’s really exciting (as before) we were seeing them close instead of open.”

When upstate New York found itself — like so many areas nationwide — losing manufacturing jobs, it invested in the natural resources as a tourist haven, and now New Yorkers flock to the Hudson River valley to get away from Manhattan and other big towns. Why isn’t Illinois doing the same to invest in river towns — so different from the rest of the state in their rolling landscape  — and attract stay-in-state tourists who might otherwise vacation in Door County, Wis., or so-called Harbor Country across Lake Michigan?

Savanna is already benefiting from a major new bridge project on U.S. Route 52 and Illinois Route 64 across the Mississippi to Sabula, Iowa. The $80.6 million project, led by the Illinois Department of Transportation along with its Iowa counterpart, is pumping money into the local economy and improving transportation, for tourists and daily commuters alike.

It also gave locals a little entertainment in March when the old bridge, a spindly structure that looked like an Erector Set design, was blown up and dropped into the river for demolition. But Lain said he’s also double-downed on it by taking the landfill created as part of the project and using that to expand Savanna’s riverfront Marquette Park.

“We’ve got some artists involved, so pieces of that old bridge … are going to be put into the artwork,” Lain said. “There’s always art” in a successful riverfront, he added. “There’s always stories and history, and we’re trying to bring some of that here as well.” Lain said the only drawback was that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had proved to be far more supportive of that side project than the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which had dragged its feet on something that seemed like a common-sense investment in the community.

Look all up and down the river on both sides and you’ll see that an investment in infrastructure is a common sign of success. Like Savanna now, thriving Alton added to its riverfront park in recent decades, creating a natural amphitheater through use of a berm. Quincy, however, has a riverfront largely comprising old abandoned warehouses from its days as a thriving river port — long past. Across the river, Hannibal, Mo., puts it to shame.

Lain pointed out that Hannibal “actually had a historic bridge that they’d taken down as well and turned into a park.”

Of course, Hannibal has some other promotional advantages going for it, namely Mark Twain.

Yet look at Paducah, Ky., with its festive riverfront, augmented by murals painted on the levee that protects it from the Ohio River, and compare that with Cairo, the southernmost Illinois town at the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi. Cairo has a levee system that is a model for the nation, in that it hasn’t flooded in 160 years. Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman credited the attentive care of the Army Corps of Engineers for maintaining that system. But otherwise the town has suffered from government neglect, most recently in a public-housing crisis brought on by decades of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development rubber-stamping reports on projects that were decaying from within.

"All of these inspections were turned in as if everything was fine," Coleman said, until the units ultimately were unlivable. "It just surfaced. The light came out. The top came off the jar. And everything was exposed.

“It’s apparent that they didn't have a plan when they started this horrific thing that they did to people's lives. And they still don't have a plan,” Coleman added. “In one sense it's unbelievable that an arm of the federal government would have brought this sort of atrocity upon its own citizens.” About 185 families, he said, or 400 people, were affected — a significant portion of a town that has dwindled to a population of 2,400.

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"We don’t want a handout, just a hand up.”

Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

HUD has displaced them and given them vouchers, which really just encourages people to leave town, Coleman said, as the government hasn't built enough public housing to replace it.

"The longer it takes for us to develop housing here, affordable housing, the less people will want to come back to Cairo,” Coleman said.

U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin have both taken an interest in Cairo, however, holding HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s feet to the fire, and just this year co-sponsoring the Creating American Investment, Redevelopment, and Opportunity (CAIRO) Task Force Act, which would call for Carson to lead a task force spurring investment and reporting on progress to be made.

“Cairo is Exhibit A for mismanagement in Washington and locally,” Durbin said at the time. “It is critical that the federal government does everything it can to fix this mess and promote the revitalization of this community.”

“The only way we can move Cairo and Alexander County forward is through a coordinated effort between federal, state and local officials focused on finding every possible way to help,” Duckworth added. 

Unfortunately, it has yet to gain traction with either the Republican majority in Congress or with President Donald Trump.

Coleman insisted Cairo has the resources, both civic and natural, to bounce back, if only it were to get someone to give it that initial spur to development. “This is one of the most strategic geographical locations in the country — that’s untapped,” he said. “We’ve got two of the mightiest rivers in the world.” He called on the federal and state governments to prioritize river transportation, with Cairo as a potential hub, and ease some of the truck congestion on the interstates.

“Just be more conscious that we’re here,” Coleman said. “We’re people too. We’re part of this state. We don’t want a handout, just a hand up.”

Former state Sen. Mike Jacobs, who succeeded Denny in the General Assembly in the 2000s, recalled how his father helped push through a $30 million project for a downtown civic center, then known as the MARK of the Quad Cities, when the state was trying to survive another economic downturn in the early ‘90s. The project was criticized as pork-barrel politics by those who were already arguing that the state was in such dire financial straits it couldn’t afford such spending — to the point where the Jacobses didn’t even take part in the actual ribbon-cutting ceremony. But it has since paid for itself, even as it’s now called, ironically enough, TaxSlayer Center in a naming-rights deal that took effect late last year, and it’s proved to be both a vital entertainment center and a reliable employer.

“It’s one of the few civic centers in the state that pays its own way,” said Denny Jacobs.

“It did a lot of construction, and that put a lot of people to work,” added Mike Jacobs. “It changed the way people looked at themselves, because we were so manufacturing-based.

“Now,” he said, “if you wanted to take that civic center out of this community, people would fight you tooth and nail.”