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Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010 01:35 am

In search of six votes for neighborhoods

In Rock Island, it’s not called the Department of Public Works, it’s Housing and Neighborhoods. Their Planning and Economic Development is known as Community and Economic Development. Their very first stated goal is to focus on preserving the city’s older neighborhoods.

In Peoria, it’s the Department of Planning and Growth. It has its own Community Development Division which identifies its mission with the opening statement, “Neighborhoods are the cornerstone to vibrant, livable communities!”

In Decatur, it’s Economic and Urban Development, which works to enhance the quality of life, health, and welfare of citizens by providing safe and viable neighborhoods. This department has five divisions, three of them identified as Neighborhood Redevelopment, Neighborhood Inspections, and Neighborhood Outreach.

Having met with the administrative staff of all three of these communities, I can vouch for their commitment to solve the city’s problems by starting with their neighborhoods. They didn’t identify their departments and divisions as “neighborhood-oriented” just for show, it’s actually how they approach the administration of city affairs.

Earlier this year, 12 of Springfield’s inner city, older neighborhoods (ICON) met to discuss common problems and concerns. From that first meeting, more than 50 individuals representing 20 different neighborhoods have met and formulated a list of issues that will be used to evaluate candidates for the municipal elections. ICON’s goal is to find six votes to solve city problems by starting with neighborhoods!

Of the nine most common problems identified by ICON, six are related to problem properties. Whether they’re vacant or boarded, have multiple code violations, have ongoing nuisance abatement issues, or owners who neglect them and ignore city ordinances, problem properties are the blight of older neighborhoods and the lasting image of our city for visitors who come to the capital city. Unfortunately, these problem properties are most prevalent in the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown area frequented by tourists.

Most early positions taken by candidates relate to the economy and ways to generate income or cut back on services. I’ve yet to hear anyone talk about how the older neighborhoods fit into the formula; solutions appear to be new businesses and jobs or reducing staff.

Yet almost 20 percent of the proposed income for the 2011 budget is property taxes. A commitment to enhance existing housing stock in the historical, older neighborhoods, instead of building on the outer edges of the city, would generate an increase in property taxes from the increased value of these homes. In the historic Enos Park neighborhood, property taxes have generated $3.5 million in new funds with almost a two to one return of private investment for every dollar of public funding spent on revitalization.

On the expense side of the formula, neighborhood revitalization will greatly reduce time, energy, and resources being spent on the draining effect of blight. The revelation of over $2 million of uncollected fines and fees owed to the city is a tragic example of how the older neighborhoods are being overlooked. The majority of these violations have occurred in the older neighborhoods, and by not enforcing financial penalties the problems are not addressed and they multiply. The older neighborhoods slip further into blight and create additional stress on the city’s budget.

When candidates talk about generating more income, they need to talk about revitalizing older neighborhoods. When they talk about reducing expenses, they need to talk about revitalizing older neighborhoods. When they analyze the effect of tourism and health services on the economy of Springfield, they need to identify where you find the majority of the facilities and personnel associated with those two driving economic engines: the older neighborhoods!

ICON wants to know, is there a mayor and city council in our future who will set their priorities by looking first to the older neighborhoods? Will we continue to allow our city to expand at the outer edges while neglecting the core neighborhoods, or will the next administration make revitalization of the heart of our city a priority?

Steve Combs, president of the Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, is chairman of Inner City Older Neighborhoods.

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