By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
A group of Metro East mayors, cast in a rare forum to talk about their towns, said they are leaning on each other more than ever and believe growth will rely on such cooperation.
“Our communities just have a battle being in the state of Illinois. We don’t need to battle ourselves,” Shiloh Mayor Jim Vernier said.
He was among eight community leaders who gathered in December at the Four Points by Sheraton in Fairview Heights during a Breakfast with the Mayors session sponsored by the Realtor Association of Southwestern Illinois and the Illinois Realtors Political Action Committee.
The event was billed mostly as a means of meeting and greeting elected officials, but as each one of the men stood to speak, it was apparent they were eager to support the need for regionalism.
“Every mayor that we asked committed,” said RASI’s Government Affairs Director Ron Deedrick. “This allows our members to interact with community leaders. The local leaders need to have that dialogue. We want to be partners in the community.”
Invited to speak in addition to Vernier were: Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert, Breese Mayor Charlie Hilmes, Columbia Mayor Kevin Hutchinson, Fairview Heights Mayor Mark Kupsky, Mascoutah Mayor Gerald Daugherty, O’Fallon Mayor Herb Roach and Swansea Village President Mike Leopold.
Following is a synopsis of the remarks by each.
Eckert, who has been mayor 13 years, said prioritizing projects in a 204-year-old city is getting increasingly difficult, particularly with Springfield’s torturous political atmosphere
“While I think all of us agree we love Illinois, it’s a tough time being a city in Illinois,” he said.
Belleville has a lot of older infrastructure and a lot of older neighborhoods, including three historic districts and two National Historic Districts. It’s also 10 miles long, which makes it more difficult for police and fire.
Eckert is hopeful for the coming year, noting the recent annexation of the property from the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows on which a new Hofbrauhaus restaurant is being completed. A new Jack Flash convenience store is about to get underway there, he said. Eckert has received a lot of criticism after delays in the project.
“It is going to happen,” he promised. “No project goes just the you want it to. There are very few fairy tale stories. There’s always hurdles, but we have to have hope and we have to talk. Keep the communication open.”
Eckert said a lot of projects are going to pop in 2018, including some along the Illinois Route 15 corridor, from the Shrine all the way east to the Eckert’s nursery and farm.
He also noted the revitalization of some existing buildings, for example the 4204 Banquet Center, which opened in the 6400 block of West Main St.
“We all have the same headaches,” Eckert said of his mayoral colleagues. “These gentlemen are all people I look up to and I get along well with all of them. We’re working better together today than we ever have and we have to keep that up.”
Hilmes said with Breese being in Clinton County, on the far reaches of Metro East, it’s easy for his town to be overlooked, and he’s come to realize that progress in other communities may mean jobs for Breese residents who live in an agricultural, bedroom community where many people go elsewhere to work.
“I would say 35 to 40 percent of Breese has to leave Breese to go to work every day,” he said.
Residents enjoy the quality of life in the community of 4,700 people, with good housing stock and people who take pride in their surroundings.
People feel safe and pitch in on community projects. He mentioned a recently developed park for those with disabilities, funded by $350,000 in private donations
The city did much of the support work on Hannah’s Playground, named for a child who died during that timeframe. The park recently got a $40,000 addition.
Hilmes said that in western Clinton County there are about eight towns with around 28,000 people total, who all work together.
“We’ve finally gotten over parochialism. People are thinking past that. That’s important — in small towns and large towns,” Hilmes said.
Hutchinson called Metro East mayors “great leaders.” One is a current president of the Illinois Municipal League (Mark Eckert). One is a past president of the same group (former O’Fallon’s Mayor Gary Graham).
“Many of us have sat in leadership positions with the Southwest Illinois Council of Mayors. One of the things you’ll find is that none of us thinks of ourselves as all-knowing,” Hutchinson said.
He said there is a willingness by all community leaders to work with groups like the Realtors, whose input is welcome.
Columbia recently had a special census showing the town at more than 10,000 people.
A lot of area is set aside for commercial growth and expansion, he said.
The American Bottom area along Interstate 255 has for years been targeted for large development that never came to fruition in part because both Columbia and Dupo were seeking an interchange, but it’s closer now than ever he feels.
Hutchinson said the situation is a perfect illustration of why potentially competing towns should work together.
“Even before I became mayor there was butting of heads and arguing about that, but since then, the mayor of Dupo and myself and leadership in both communities have worked together to form an alliance and are working on an intergovernmental agreement between the two cities. No matter which interchange goes first, we’ve all agreed that the region will be stronger with both interchanges — and a connector between them.
“Once it gets going we’re looking at a billion dollars of commercial infrastructure. A lot of this will be spurred by the railroad expanding its intermodal yard in Dupo by a mile to the south toward Columbia. That’s an area that’s going to have a lot of potential. It’s really exciting to see two towns working together for the betterment of the region.”
Columbia’s staff is taking the approach that challenges can be solved, he said.
“I find that whenever we have a round peg and a square box, we have a group that can find a way to square the peg or round the box, and a lot of that is coming from you folks out there.”
Kupsky said Fairview Heights is one of the youngest cities in Metro East and will mark its 50th anniversary in 2019. He said the presence of St. Clair Square mail helps mark its place on the map.
“The mall is healthy and that’s good for the region. It’s rated No. 2 in the St. Louis area. We’re fortunate to have a partner like CBL (Properties, the mall’s owners). They are going to be making some major investments. I can’t tell you about all of them now, but there are projects in the works.”
He said any empty spaces at the mall right now are planned vacancies that will help make way for two unidentified, “major tenants” that are anticipated in coming year. As leases come open, the leases are not being renewed so that CBL has some flexibility with its space.
“If you go to the mall and see vacancies, don’t panic,” Kupsky said. “On paper, they are 100 percent leased.”
The city of 18,000 has a strong retail base, but it also has “housing of all sorts,” he said. “Back in the ’80s we struggled with housing starts. Now we have new subdivisions, a golf course community. New and old. We’re a melting pot, we don’t have a lot of native ‘Fairview Heightsians’.”
Quality of life is still important, he said.. There is a bike trail underway, a streetscape program, and a 55,000-square-foot recreation complex now underway off Bunkum Road and visible from Interstate 64.
Those kinds of things will continue to attract new residents from Missouri as well as those who want to move off Scott Air Force Base, Kupsky said.
“The mayors in the room here take that regional approach, and that’s important. Especially to those of you in real estate. If the Air Force base wasn’t here, how many homes would you have sold last year. Right?”
Daugherty traveled around the world with the Air Force before retiring and moving from Scott AFB to Mascoutah.
He thinks the real attraction of Metro East is access, commute time and cost of living.
In 2006, Scott AFB gained the Surface Deployment Distribution Center and a 1,000 civilian engineering jobs, which were based mainly in Arlington, Va. There was a concern that many of the workers would opt not to move to this area, so a delegation from Southern Illinois traveled East to make a pitch for the many amenities around Scott Air Force Base. People there were amazed at this region’s conveniences, Daugherty said.
“They figured about 25 percent of them might move out here. As a result of our visit, we ended up with about 50 percent,” he said.
Mascoutah today has 8,500 people, three new subdivisions in the works and plans to open a new Legacy assisted living project in January.
Daugherty is also a strong supporter of St. Louis MidAmerica Airport, which he said is starting to come into its own. The parking lot is often completely filled and multiple flight destinations are now available. And the airport’s joint use runway helps solidify the durability of Scott AFB, which has a $3.5 billion impact.
“You see all the negative stuff (about public funding), but there are a lot of pluses,” he said.
Roach has been mayor only since April but his family has business roots that go back to 1850. His wife was born at Scott Air Force Base.
He said newer and more established residents have made the community what it is today — with more than 30,000 people.
“We were targeting to build about 150 new homes this year (2017). We’ve surpassed that. And we already have on the books 100 homes for the next year,” he said.
The community plans to market itself “like never before” to help with diversification. Relative to that is a study of potential uses of the property around the new Rieder Road interchange on Interstate 64. Among possibilities, he said, are light manufacturing, distribution and office complexes.
“Be ready to see some plans rolled out on that shortly,” he said.
Roach said he has been working closely with the area’s superintendents because the city and educators have so many of the same goals.
Roach said area mayors have also had conversations about going together to bid together on certain services to see if costs can be lowered. It’s only an idea, he stressed, but it uses the concept of group buying power.
Other recent developments in the community include two new restaurants and a third under construction, a proposed five-story office building and discussions involving three new hotels.
Roach said the city and St. Clair County have also had a couple of meetings to talk about having a veterans community, an enclave of homes to help homeless vets get re-established.
The city is also going start an O’Fallon City Fest in August, a picnic that the city hasn’t had for years, he said, but one the public requested.
Vernier praised the idea of regionalism and thinks more of it is needed.
MidAmerica airport is luring people who stay at hotels, buy gas and eat at restaurants across the region.
Shiloh has been involved in several projects that have implications for the broader market including new bike trails, new home developments and an extension of Frank Scott Parkway from Shiloh to Illinois Route 158, which would serve people trying to get to the new Memorial East Hospital and — if it comes to fruition — a Siteman Cancer Center on the Memorial grounds.
“We need it badly,” Vernier said of the roadway, which St. Clair County anticipates bids on in the coming year.
A first-year mayor, Leopold says he welcomes any input he gets. Swansea has about 14,000 residents and about 5,400 houses. The medium income is almost $67,000 and the median home price is around $165,000. Most of the residents are professional, white collar, and a majority travel out of town for work.
He said the community has lots of professional parks
Swansea is planning ways to triple its greenspace, and an announcement can be expected soon.
“We are a bedroom community more than anything else. We are what we are. We’re not going to get the next big box store or the next big mall,” Leopold said. “But something we will always be is a small community with Midwestern values. We are where people choose to live.”