Strength in moderation
Carbondale's Mayor Henry, a moderate Republican, turns SIU campus town around with the help of, yes, new taxes
By Ted Cox
Carbondale Mayor Mike Henry has the job nobody else wanted — no Republican, in any case.
As head of the local Chamber of Commerce, Henry was charged with finding someone to run for mayor before the last election for the office in 2015. "I'm running around trying to find someone to do it," he recalled, sitting recently at his desk in the Civic Center. "And nobody would run for mayor," Henry added. "And so, five days before the filing deadline, I just decided to do it myself."
Henry said he'd never held elected office before, but he saw the need for change and moderation in local government. As a Southern Illinois University engineering graduate in the early '70s, he rejected more lucrative offers to move elsewhere, instead opting to remain in Carbondale and open a business, Henry Printing, which just celebrated its 45th anniversary last year.
"I just didn't want to pull the trigger on moving to a big city," Henry said. "I really wanted to stay here.
"I love the university and the university town," he added. "You know, the students keep us young."
He's found his new job as mayor had the same revitalizing effect. "I'm 68 years old, and it's been a neat life experience, because it was something so different," Henry said.
According to Henry, the previous administration was rocked by long, contentious meetings that sometimes rose to the level of personal attacks between members of the City Council. "Very, very unprofessional," he said. "Just not the way it should be. And we were just the laughingstock of southern Illinois." Henry ran on a campaign to change that tone.
The city elects half the six council members to four-year terms along with the mayor, then the other three in off-year elections two years later. Before they were in office, Henry called his newly elected council members together and got all to agree that things were going to be different.
"I invited them all to my house and said the only thing I want to do when we sit down at the council table is not to have personal assaults on each other, agree to disagree, realize we all have our own opinions, and let's just be professionals and work through it," Henry said. "And that's the way we've been."
Henry said the government's sudden hands-on, can-do approach has helped it weather the loss of students at SIU's Carbondale campus. He said key to that was what some people call "revenue enhancements," although he didn't shy from using that most hateful of words to fiscally conservative Republicans — taxes.
"We've passed a prepared food and beverage tax, and an electric package, a liquor tax," he said, "but we dedicated that money" specifically to capital improvement projects. Not unlike Savanna Mayor Chris Lain, Henry identified infrastructure and education as key elements in turning the city around.
On the capital front, they've spruced up the main drag, Illinois Avenue, by removing overhead utility wires, repairing sidewalks (now open to dining areas for restaurants and bars), repainting traffic lines, and installing new benches, bike racks, planters, and public art.
"We kept our promise" in putting the tax increases directly to work, Henry said, "and we're doing what we said we would do with it. And that makes a big difference to the people out in the community. They just feel better and they feel part of it. And they see the results.
"Somebody always complains about tax increases, and I complain about tax increases," he admitted, "but we put them to good use, and we proved that, once people see it, they go, 'Wow, we didn't realize how run-down things were.'"
"Somebody always complains about tax increases, and I complain about tax increases, but we put them to good use."
Carbondale Mayor Mike Henry (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)
But while the improvements have changed the way locals feel about the town, same as in Savanna, education has proved to be even thornier in Carbondale as home to SIU, which has suffered a dramatic drop in enrollment over the last decade, exacerbated by the state budget impasse during the last few years.
According to Henry, the commonly accepted figure is that each student spends about $10,000 over the course of the school year in the local economy. "We know that rolls over five, six, seven, eight, nine times," Henry said. "So when you're used to $70,000 a year in economic impact and when you lose 10,000 students, you're talking about a lot of money.
"The very first thing the state needs to do, in my opinion, is fully fund higher education," he added, "because these universities are very, very stressed."
The university and the town have a symbiotic relationship, and they tend to rise and fall together. SIU President Randy Dunn recently compared the relationship to General Motors in Detroit, saying, "When we sneeze, the region gets a cold."
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin recently acknowledged the effect the state budget impasse and the SIU enrollment drop have had on the community. "They have on average about 50 homes for sale at any given time," he said. "Now they have 250, and the reason is this absolute lack of confidence about the future of the university, brought on by the budget crisis," including lost faculty and staff, which has an exponential effect on the local economy. "They're wondering what's tomorrow going to be like?"
According to Henry, the same decline has afflicted the rental market. "We have rental-property vacancy rates of 60 percent or more now," he said. "Ten years ago, it was basically zero."
So as SIU tries to stop the bleeding in enrollment, Henry granted that Carbondale has a role as well in trying to reverse the crisis in confidence and make the town more inviting — even as universities like Alabama and Mississippi intensively recruit Illinois students by preying on the state's budget uncertainty.
The street improvements were one element, but Henry added that Durbin was proving instrumental in another area by trying to improve the performance of Amtrak's famed City of New Orleans train, which runs through town but, according to Henry, "has the worst on-time performance in the country." Henry blamed that on railroad owners sidetracking passenger trains to make way for freight trains in the South — in violation of federal law. "Sen. Durbin is now highly involved in this," Henry said.
He's also working to get federal funds for an upgrade in the Amtrak station. "This one's built for 70 people. We will have 200 to 300 students sitting around on the floor," Henry said. "So it really needs to get fixed." The project narrowly missed being approved last year, he added, so hopes are it will get the green light in the next round of projects. He said that would not only benefit SIU students, many of whom use the train to regularly return home to the Chicago area, but would also potentially draw passengers from Paducah, Ky., and Cape Girardeau, Mo.
Henry said some business interests are buying low in expectation that the area will bounce back. There's been interest in reviving shuttered restaurants and making new use of a closed Sears, and Culver's is opening a new $3 million restaurant in Carbondale. "So to me this is saying business interests are seeing some hope somewhere here," he added.
He pointed to how Carbondale has to sell its unique aspects, such as the way it's close to the Shawnee National Forest. Thanks in large part to the legacy of Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic-dome home, the town is devoted to bikes and various other green initiatives, including the new solar-powered fountain in the campus lake, which deters algae growth. Henry also lauded the area's earlier investment in a water reservoir, which has allowed it to lay claim to having the best water in the state, while also averting the disaster that afflicted other towns across southern Illinois when a water pipe recently burst at a Rend Lake plant. Henry also cited the stabilizing impact of SIU's health-care system, which both serves and employs residents across the area. That has led to estimates that as many as one in 10 local residents were born in a foreign country.
"We just have a lot of physicians coming from India or Arab countries, and they bring a lot of culture to Carbondale," Henry said. While the town pulled up short of joining the so-called sanctuary-city movement, Henry pointed out that the council had passed a resolution "that we are a warm and welcoming community, and we won't discriminate based on immigration status, race, ethnicity, or religious choice."
That's not exactly the conventional Republican position on immigration in the Trump era.
"I guess I would call myself a moderate Republican," Henry said, a vanishing breed in a state that used to be known for GOP moderates like U.S. Sen. Charles Percy and U.S. Rep. John Anderson. "You know, my dad was a union man and an arch Democrat. And I'm not sure how I got on the Republican side of things really.
"But from the time I was president of the senior class, and my dad and I from that time decided to quit talking about politics, I don't like partisanship. I don't think it's good for us because it gets put up front instead of 'doing the right thing.' There should be a solution somewhere here."
Henry is enough of a Republican to argue forcibly for term limits in the General Assembly and an end to gerrymandering in drawing up local districts, but at the same time he said the dysfunctional state government in Springfield had become a national "laughingstock" just as Carbondale was once the downstate laughingstock. At least Carbondale, he said, is moving to correct that perception.
Henry dismissed the common argument that Carbondale has lost enrollment because it's no longer a highly ranked "party school." He said that reputation was often exaggerated, and that now students don't go to the bars until almost midnight ahead of the 2 a.m. closing time, where they used to camp out there all night. He re-emphasized that many of today's students also return home for the weekends.
Henry did say he was intent on reviving an annual Halloween festival, starting this fall, after the celebratory holiday was all but canceled following years of campus unrest. "Everybody's scared to death to do it," Henry said, "people my age especially because they remember it got really violent and some cars got burned and people were getting hurt."
Some suggested it just be revived as a fall festival. "And I said, no, we've got to call it Halloween, so we can get these old gray-hairs like me to come back and have a reunion."
Henry hopes a Halloween revival will help spark a renewed interest in SIU, and in that way perhaps it will rise from the ashes of the state budget fiasco.