If East St. Louis is going to turn around ... if Southwestern Illinois is going to continue to expand, somebody has got to come to grips with the cancer right here in the middle of it, and what we've got is a bunch of general practitioners trying to cure a cancer patient. They all have varied opinions, they are parochial in their attitudes, so we're not getting the pulling together by a team. We need specialists that can get to the root of the problem and possibly come up with a cure for it.
This is the view of Ron Wallace, president of Union Bank in East St. Louis.
"I don't see a cancer specialist on the horizon," he said. "I don't see the cancer specialist in the form of a city manager who is hired by local elected officials. I see a continuation of the same parochialism that is to a large degree responsible for us being where we are today."
The prospects for the city are very difficult, Wallace continued. "We hang our hopes from time to time on a few bits of good news -- like the extension of the Jefferson National Memorial to this side of the river as a catalyst. Well, I don't know that's the catalyst. I don't believe riverboat gambling will be the catalyst for anything. I've been reading an article in the Christian Science Monitor. Here's Atlantic City still awaiting its jackpot as a result of casino gambling. If you get a few steps away from the Taj Mahal and those other casinos, it's absolutely a shambles there. This (and he shows a picture of a rundown house) is not atypical of East St. Louis."
Wallace refers to efforts to develop new housing, and a housing factory, "all worthwhile projects except you have to have jobs to make them work." Some say you need housing before jobs, and the other side asks "How can you have housing if you don't have people gainfully employed so they can pay for the housing?" He said he understands a housing factory has to be able to manufacture and market 200 units a year to break even, and the nature of the product requires the market be nearby. "Can East St. Louis absorb 200 units a year? I question that."
He is a member of Target 2000 which plans a new subdivision to bring school teachers and other professionals who have moved elsewhere back into the city. I hear a good deal about some of those folks out there," he said. "They are professionals, middle-income wage earners and on and on, who are waiting to get back if someone can come up with the kinds of housing and the kinds of amenities that would make it worth their while to come back to their first love. But I don't know if there are enough of those kinds of folks to fill 20 units of new housing, or 50, or more."
Robert Vancil's plan to us tax increment financing to reduce the effect of high taxes on home buyers has merit, Wallace said (see Vancil interview). "The burden of the real estate tax is beyond a burden, its unthinkable. Even the TIF doesn't do nearly enough just to relieve that burden. A $60,000 home would be assessed at $20,000 and at a $20 tax rate, would be taxed at $4,000 per year. If TIF gets it down to $3,000, it would still be too much, and the home could not be resold for $60,000 because of where it is."
Getting private enterprise to replace some public housing would be a lot better, he said, "if you could get private enterprise to come in and run it."
"Public housing has proved what it isn't, and that's at the very painful expense of this city and to cities all over the country. It is something that happened well intentioned, but it doesn't work. The sooner you can get East St. Louis and all cities in this country shifted to a privatization of housing the better off we are going to be. But I don't see that happening overnight; not anytime soon."
(Some 14,000 East St. Louisans live in public housing - 35 percent of the preliminary 1990 census figures. They pay no real estate taxes to support the city and its school system.)
Wallace sees Metro Link of benefit to the community in creating construction jobs and as long as its terminus is in the city, but once it is extended to Belleville or Scott I don't see the stops at this terminal as meaningful anymore. It's not a panacea.
"One of my concerns, is that we have been down so long in this community that we hang our hopes on stars, and that can be a very traumatic, disappointing experience when the star plummets and you go down with it. That concerns me a lot."
There are things that can help in the short run, but they shouldn't be mistaken for long-term turnarounds, he said.
"I guess the single most important thing that is in my mind is coming to grips with the political problem of this community, and I call it a problem because I think it is a very, very strained, very hurtful political problem. Unless we get the principle of strong fiscal management, it is going to be pretty much of the continuation of the same We may see some neighborhood pockets gussie up we may see some low to moderate income housing begin to spring up, probably in clusters in various parts of the community, but I don't. know that beyond that we are going to see business return to the community. We have very little to offer in terms of basic services such as sewers, public works, police, fire..."
Like many East St. Louisans, Wallace would like to see more appreciation of the academic achievements of the school system rather just that it produces fine athletes. He said that his bank sponsored an essay contest with a $1,000 savings bond as a first prize, $500 second and $100 third "We were absolutely blown over by the quality of the essays. These kids write well, they think creatively, they think with some depth. They were a real credit not only to East Side and Lincoln, but they would be a credit to Belleville West, Belleville East, O'Fallon and on and on. We are doing more here than training football and basketball players."
Some of the divisions are caused by a lack of communication, and leaders are not communicating because they are not making the effort, he suggested. That is probably compounded by some of the media throwing a roadblock to open and honest communication. If there's a bone of contention between (John) Baricevic and (Carl) Officer, I guess I don't see the News-Democrat doing anything to allay that, to bring the sides together and say "Fellows, aren't we really saying the same thing?"
Carl Officer, Wallace said, is charismatic, bright, has a quick mind, but "he is changing. He's not the same guy who was first elected."