This quarter, my Economics class is reading and discussing Spend Shift, a fascinating look at how the economic recession is pushing Americans back to more traditional values and, as a result, shifting how and what we buy.
Each chapter features a case study of how a city is experiencing a shift in these values. One of the chapters, “The New American Frontier: Detroit,” had me nodding vigorously and thinking, “Yes! Absolutely!” while also wondering, “Detroit? Really? Detroit-Detroit?”
In a sweet little twist of irony, I was reading that particular chapter while sipping coffee at downtown Elgin’s Domani Cafe, where I often go for Saturday studying. (Try the Cuban sandwich. Trust me.) Downtown Elgin has suffered some of the same challenges as Detroit, though on a much smaller scale. The manufacturing base that was so strong a century ago has fled – the watch factory and its supporting industries employed thousands, as did the dairy industry. Crime was a very real problem in the downtown through the 80s and 90s. Property values dropped (and are doing so again, though not quite to Detroit’s level, where the median home price is $8,000 and the Silverdome recently sold for a mere $583,000.)
When I first moved here in 2006, many still knew Elgin by its old reputation and asked if I was crazy. But I saw a great town with more character than most of the commuter suburbs, and an opportunity to really make a home.
A handful of brave entrepreneurs have also seen opportunity over the past several years and moved into the downtown core, taking advantage of low rents. More recently, the Downtown Neighborhood Association and the city have been working to help promote this migration. Not all the fledgling businesses have made it – several years of streetscaping construction have made it difficult for potential customers to navigate and park – but things are looking up.
In Detroit, entrepreneurs aren’t afraid to try new things, because the cost of failure is relatively low. With very low overhead and building owners desperate for tenants, businesses can afford to experiment a bit and be creative in their efforts. Spend Shift talks at length with the owners of a French bistro, an art gallery, and a creperie – all of whom took risks that have paid off. The business owners are united for a stronger city, and in early 2010, they drafted what they called “The Detroit Declaration,” a set of twelve principles that is to guide their future. This movement continues to gain momentum, and a related Facebook page has nearly 14,000 fans who actively discuss many of the city’s issues.
Several of the delcaration’s tenants could be taken to heart by Elginites who want to improve our fair city. Here are a few that seemed most relevant to me, with my take on how they apply. (View the full thing.)
Preserve our authenticity – “Celebrate and elevate” Elgin’s unique qualities, like our river, our location, our parks. How many cities our size have a zoo, an opera, a world-class symphony and an award-winning library? Sometimes, when certain proposals come up, naysayers moan, “We’re not Naperville/Geneva/Chicago.” And we’re not. It’s time to stop trying to be something we’re not and celebrate who we are.
Diversify our economy – For decades, Elgin relied on a couple big industries – namely watch-making and dairy. When they went bust, so, too, did our city’s employment rate. While the city is making strides at this with new industries (Siemens, Wanxiang, etc), they should do more to promote the smaller businesses that actually create jobs, rather than existing companies that merely import jobs. Groups like the non-profit, grass-roots Elgin Technology Center have a lot of potential to incubate these small businesses and build connections among them to help them succeed. Giving incentives to multi-national companies who have already signed leases to move here only make us more dependent on large companies, which is never ideal. If the city must spend money on incentives, invest in smaller, innovative businesses who have room and ideas to grow. A little bit of money can go a long way with start-ups, rather than hundreds of thousands of dollars to multi-nationals.
Enhance quality of place and Demand transportation alternatives – Detroiters define this as “a comprehensive vision for transit-linked, high-quality, walkable urban centers,” which is good, and valid for Elgin’s downtown core. But connecting the other parts of Elgin to the downtown core – via bike paths and other links – are just as important, as big portions of the population live within 5-10 miles of downtown proper. Currently, they spend their dollars along Randall Road, often out of city limits. I occasionally run into lifelong Elginites who haven’t been downtown in years and have no idea what has developed there.
Prioritize education, pre-K through 12 and beyond – We must do something about U46, as it is the biggest detractor for many potential residents. People with children want to live in areas with good schools, where their tax dollars fund a solid public education. They don’t want to have to pay private school tuition on top of their taxes – of which U46 comprises the largest share. Whether or not the current reputation is deserved is another issue. But regardless, we must demonstrate that education is vital to this town – and then prove it. We have two higher education institutions – ECC and Judson University – an advantage few other towns can boast. Let’s leverage them.
Demand government accountability – Especially during a recession when many have lost jobs, are underemployed, have seen pay cuts, etc, we become more concerned with how our tax dollars are being spent. We’ve all tightened our belts – shouldn’t government do the same? Elgin is making some cautious steps towards this. I’m holding my breath until the Budget Task Force is announced – who will they pick from the 57 applicants? – and to see how wide they open the books. We can hope their recommendations are truly in the taxpayer interest and that the Council enacts reforms. Meanwhile, groups like Elgin OCTAVE show promise for being good, necessary watchdogs that can ask tough, necessary questions of our spending habits.
Think regionally and leverage our geography – We’re just 35 minutes from O’Hare – and the opposite direction of the worst of the traffic. Chicago is less than 40 miles away, and we have a relatively reliable train link to Union Station. We’re halfway between Chicago and Rockford, with a huge pool of available workers. If we play our cards right, we can draw from a huge metropolitan population. I’ve heard the city make similar claims, but I don’t think we can do too much of this.
What do you think? Do we need an Elgin Manifesto of sorts to rally around? Or are we already on this path? Does this resonate with you – or am I completely off base?