By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
Last month, I watched an extraordinary gathering of eight mayors on one stage at a year-end Realtors presentation.
What struck me was both how unusual the situation was and how far we’ve come as a region in Southwestern Illinois. I’ve covered politics and the players for almost 40 years and such camaraderie has often been missing.
However, the cooperative air I witnessed in December is more the norm than ever. Increasingly, the leaders in Metro East are coming together to talk over business — and issues. When one has something to celebrate, his (or her) neighbors are quick to congratulate.
It’s a far cry from the old days when towns were pretty xenophobic about their territories. Today, you hear fewer debates over annexations and more talk about regional problem solving.
And that’s the way it should be because virtually every town in Illinois faces common issues. From paying for mandates to living within means, the challenges are many. Infrastructure put in the ground a hundred years ago is failing all over the place, and every mayor is plagued by it. Brick and mortar stores are hurting, if not closing altogether. A sales tax base built during stronger economies is now suffering from the new, dreaded online shopping habit.
It’s hard to run a town when revenues are dwindling, grant money is flagging and the cost of everything is going up. And it’s nearly impossible when no one wants to raise taxes.
So, it was refreshing to see this group, the mayors of Fairview Heights, Shiloh, Breese, Swansea, Belleville, O’Fallon, Mascoutah and Columbia speaking during the convocation sponsored by the Realtors Association of Southwestern Illinois. The word “we” was used several times in talking about the region, and to me that’s telling. Cooperation, even minor, is how things are going to get done in the modern age.
A perfect example of that is the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, which is comprised of community leaders and businesses coming together to improve the entire Metro East. No major subject of the last 25 years has failed to be addressed by the council, as fine and dedicated a group of individuals as there are in these parts. These are people not out to make names for themselves; they’re out to make life better for all of us.
Time and again the last 50 years, regional cooperation played a role in making us great. That’s how we got Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. It’s how we managed to keep and grow Scott Air Force Base. It’s how a major pattern of interstate highways “just happened” to be built — and around which there is tremendous growth.
We’re witnessing a new phase of this regionalism now as we watch the growth and leadership exhibited by the St. Louis Regional Freightway, the Bi-State Development-supported agency that is bolstering this area’s reputation as a major transportation hub. Freightway officials are coordinating a growth program on both sides of the Mississippi River that is going to pay dividends as many people come together with one voice to fight for such things as rebuilding the Interstate 270 bridge and the Merchants Bridge — two of the Freightway’s biggest priorities.
Such construction is no small thing, but there are other challenges faced by our region and they are equally important to our economy — crime, racism, poverty, opioid abuse to name a few.
It’s going to take a continuing, massive meeting of the minds to fix these societal problems and march down a path of prosperity for all. Leadership like that cited above is going to be a big part of the solution.