Earl Lazerson

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Precursors to City Turn-Around

 

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Fiscal credibility, sound infrastructure,
quality school system

Fiscal credibility, a sound infrastructure and a good school system are necessary to turn East St. Louis around, in the opinion of Earl Lazerson, president of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, founder of many programs that impact on East St. Louis.

Lazerson conceived the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, midwifed Target 2000 in East St. Louis, led the legislature to create the Illinois Development Authority with the dream of extending the Jefferson Memorial to the east bank Of the Mississippi, chaired a committee that recommended the Martin Luther King Bridge be part of the interstate highway system and served on another committee to make it happen, and most recently served on the governor's financial advisory board that led to the $34 million loan "bailout" plan passed for East St. Louis in the summer of 1990.

SIUE has spent millions on its East St. Louis center, now located in the Broadview Hotel, and the dental clinic operated there.

Asked what East St. Louis needs, Lazerson spoke easily on a topic obviously deeply considered:

"Realistically, there are two things that in a concrete sense would be precursors to turning the economic situation around. One is you've got to guarantee the fiscal credibility of the city. Nobody in my view is going to invest unless there is a sense that the city is prepared to handle its obligations and responsibilities appropriately.

"When I am talking about fiscal responsibility I am talking about preparing balanced budgets, seeing to it that the appropriate accounting takes place, audits are run on a regular basis, the way that in a normal sense you run any municipal corporation.

"The other aspect is that youve got to guarantee the basic infrastructure. I'm talking specifically about safety and security, health, roads, sewers, that sort of thing. Those things have got to be (provided). Speaking as a member of the (governor's) financial advisory board (on East St. Louis' fiscal problems), our report I think clearly lays out the situation of the city in both cases. There is in my estimation no way for these two things to happen, that is the re-establishment of fiscal credibility and the kind of work that needs to be done on the infrastructure -none of that is going to be possible without the kind of remedies that we suggested in our report to the governor.

"Since then the legislation has passed, the aldermanic council has triggered that legislation by voting in support of becoming in effect a distressed city under the legislation, and that would enable the governor to appoint his oversight commission, and move ahead with the work that needs to be done there. But I think that is one set of things that needs to occur.

"Another thing is that the public school system, which is the backbone of any community, needs to be strengthened and every child in the City of East St. Louis needs to be guaranteed that he or she will get a proper education. I see that as the foundation on which everything else rests.

"Now, I am an optimist. I am an optimist about the future of East St. Louis based on a number of facts, the most central of which is it sits on key strategic ground with regard to the entire metropolitan area. It is perfectly sited for the future development of Southwestern Illinois. If that can occur, I think the entire region will benefit. If it does not occur, conversely, the entire region will suffer.

"This is not simply an East St. Louis problem. It is a problem for the whole metropolitan area.

"How it came about, the historical nexus of events that led to it, that is something I don't know very much about, in an extended sense. But I do know that the issues that I have laid out on the table, education, fiscal credibility the development of sound infrastructure, those are crucial to the development of that city."

Asked whether he sees racism on the part of blacks, the opposition to white "interference" in black city affairs, is an obstacle to turning the city around, Lazerson responded:

"I think that what we are talking about here varies dramatically depending upon whom you are encountering. I have had the privilege of working with people like Sen. Kenneth Hall and Oliver Hendricks, Percy McKinney and Roosevelt Malone. I don't Aetect any of that in those relationships. It seems to me they are four-square attempting to resolve the issues of the city and it is color-independent. In my working relationship with them I have never had a feeling of a barrier between us.

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Aug. 30  Gov. James Thompson signed the Distressed Cities Act in East St. Louis and appointed Earl Lazerson to head the East St. Louis Advisory Authority, to oversee the city's handling of state loan funds, city budgets and fiscal responsibility. Also on the authority are Ron Bean, executive direector of the Illinois Development Finance Authority, Ronald Thompson, president of The GR Group Inc., Claudia Thomas, retired East St. Louis schoolteacher and Rev. Jerome Jackson, minister at the Southern Mission Baptist Church.

 

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that you are wrong about your perception, because it screams out from the newspapers every day. I have always taken a very pragmatic view of things; I sort of put that aside and attempt to make progress where I can and where I'm welcome.

"The mayor (East St. Louis Mayor Carl Officer) for example, on a number of occasions has engaged in that kind of rhetoric; on the other hand, I have seen him in other situations where there is not a hint of that. I chalk that up in part at least not so much as an ideological perspective but as a political one. I think it gets in the way. I think it confuses people. I think that we all have a responsibility to stick to the facts."

Asked about a speech Officer made on the campus that startled many people, accusing the university of not meeting its obligations to black students, Lazerson said, "I don't really want to get into a situation where I am talking about what the mayor says or does not."

Explaining the role of the Southern Illinois Development Authority, Lazerson said, "We were created by legislative mandate back in 1987, the governor signed legislation, with the intent to promote economic development through certain specific tools in the two-county area, St. Clair and Madison; that's our jurisdiction. We have the power to issue bonds in support of projects that are covered by the legislation. The mandate is very broad. It also speaks directly to our being involved with regards to the question of riverfront development.

"On that score, the specific that we are currently involved in has to do with the expansion of the Jefferson National Memorial across the river to the east bank. In August of 1989 the Secretary of the Interior indicated that if a parcel of land of up to 100 acres were to be donated and found environmentally clean, he would then move ahead and designate that as the national park complementing the Arch park. The role of the development authority is to, one, attempt to secure the land through donations or other means and two, to provide the environmental certification that the secretary talked about.

"It is our hope that if we can accomplish that then he will move ahead and make the designation."

Lazerson continued that Officer "came to me as chairman of the authority several months ago and asked if we would take on the general responsibility for riverfront development, and my response to him was that our role was as a participant as part of park expansion, but we were not in a position to take on that general responsibility. We would work in cooperation with the City of East St. Louis to do what seemed feasible and prudent within our powers."

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The Interstate network is just one of East St. Louis's advantages

The authority has only 17 acres at the river's end of Trendley Avenue. Fifteen of those acres, where the huge flag flies, had been acquired by the Gateway Center group in St. Louis. The titles have been transferred to the authority. The authority is about to do an environmental assessment of the general area between the Poplar and Eads bridges, where siting would take place.

The secretary's 1989 letter spoke of up to 100 acres. Lazerson said his view is to move to as quickly as possible get him to designate, following certification of environmental soundness, what has been acquired. That land would be the nucleus of the park.

The National Park Service also wants a 300 acre protective zone. Lazerson said that was the intention from the beginning and the State of Illinois and others have indicated that they would help out in creating the 300-acre zone with other state and federal funds.

 

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