Cultural Museum on
Wally Carson is the executive of the East St. Louis Area Development Authority, and he has a dream, a dream that he feels must come true.
It is a multi-cultural ethnic museum "smack dab in the middle" of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial extension on the East St. Louis riverfront, and accompanying it, a large amphitheater. It would complement and complete the Jefferson Memorial with a world class museum celebrating the contributions of the various ethnic groups that shaped our nation and moved through this area going west: French, English, American Indians, Germans, Polish, blacks, others.
"There is nothing in the country that I know of that celebrates that great event from 1730 through the end of the 1800s," he said.
"This could be an anchor development that could marry the whole region," Metro-East to Metro-West, and could provide the spark for riverfront development and East St. Louis redevelopment.
It could be financed - $30 million to $40 million -with revenue bonds then turned over to the National Park Service to manage and maintain. That way it wouldn't even show up in the federal red ink.
It would be complemented by Metro-Link which could shuttle Arch visitors across the river to see the rest of the memorial, and to enjoy the spectacular view from the East St. Louis riverfront of the Arch and downtown St. Louis. It could be given a sense of security by architectural design. It would open the door to East St. Louis' participation in the- United States' fastest expanding industry tourism.
Carson would like to see a park of 100 to 200 acres. U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello sees the park coming in 1990, but it might be as little a's 17 acres to start. He thinks it is better to start with whatever can be donated. He favors a smaller park - the Memorial in St. Louis is only about 80 acres - so as to keep more of the riverfront taxable. Mayor Carl Officer also wants to avoid removing more land than necessary from tax rolls.
The riverboat gambling "is not going to be the financial salvation of East St. Louis," in Carson's eyes. Revenue must come from real estate taxes and sales taxes. "Or an increase in population living in privately owned (taxpaying) housing." The riverfront park can bring direct jobs, but more importantly can spark investments and developments that will bring real estate and sales tax revenues, and many more jobs.
The East St. Louis Area Development Authority comprises the mayors of East St. Louis, Alorton, Centreville, Brooklyn and Venice, the directors of the' Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs and the Illinois Finance Authority, and one gubernatorial appointment. It was created in 1986 to do overall comprehensive planning and economic development activities in the five communities. It has office space in the East St. Louis City Hall. However, Carson also works for the City of Centreville and as a consultant for other cities, and spends about 10 hours a week in City Hall.
Funding is by the General Assembly primarily on a piecemeal basis, which has impaired the comprehensive planning that was contemplated at its inception. However, it claims a record of $6 million in private investments and 250 jobs created in its first 2-1/2 years. Its biggest project has been the clearing of acreage including the old Kurrus Funeral Home and the building of a new National Food Store at 25th and State streets in East St. Louis, with developer Don Soffer. "We essentially gave away some state property to a developer and we worked with that developer to relocate families and businesses and to build that store. We had a few problems, but we got the job done." That store accounts for 150 of the 250 new jobs the authority cites. It seems to be thriving.
The area simply has to grow because of its strategic location and we want to help prepare the community for the growth that we know is going to come. In order to do that, a lot of planning will be required and a lot of money has to be spent."
While Carson doesn't see East St. Louis exploding into a new era, "I do think it is on the brink to a new era, and the direction is going to depend on how well the state cooperates with the city and the city cooperates with the state. I see some changes coming, both in the structure of city government and the approach that's going to have to be taken."
"That approach needs to be 'back to basics,' in police protection, fire protection and city services," in Carson's opinion. And streets and sewers are basic to city services. "The city itself can't handle these problems with existing revenue. Through the state and federal governments' help, in three or four years the city could be 'back to snuff,"' Carson says.
"If the state and federal governments are willing to make the investment, then the city will be back almost as good as it was in the late '60s in terms of making it an All-American City again, maybe by the year 2000. That gives us 10 years. But someone has to risk a substantial investment in order to get the city back on track."
Federal authorities have taken over the East St. Louis Housing Authority for mismanagement of funds, the state has reclaimed motor fuel taxes for misuse of funds and community development grants are funneled through Target 2000 to guarantee responsibility in the use of the money. So who will risk that "investment?"
"We're going to have to get some people in city government who are responsible professionals, planners and administrators," Carson responds. The city has a poor vertical staff. A third of the city workers ought to be replaced for laziness or incompetence, but many are entrenched.
Carson favors city manager government, being pushed by State Rep. Wyvetter Younge and endorsed, according to Younge, by Mayor Carl Officer. Carson thinks a strong city manager could clean house of inefficient or corrupt personnel where it is politically impossible for elected officials.
From his planning perspective, Carson's other dreams include a unified storm water and sanitary sewage system and treatment authority with the cost spread over the entire drainage basin. The present system is far too costly. Carson worked for the last tax increase for the Metro-East Sanitary District, but said it is not the long-term answer.
Carson does not think crime is as bad as it is perceived to be, but acknowledges that there are places to avoid. However, he doesn't see a cop on every corner as a solution. He sees a need for jobs and alternative life styles and programs to deal with some of the social problems that police face, including drug abuse. "Our municipal police forces are simply not equipped to deal with that. It is a social problem that should be taken away from the police department and put somewhere else. I don't know where, but I think we should devise some experiments and see what will and won't work," Carson said.
New sidewalks are being poured on Missouri Avenue from Collinsville Avenue to the Federal Building and Post Office, but some of the buildings along the way are in sad disrepair.
Carson thinks St. Clair County should rethink its taxation policies and work more with the city for a fairer distribution of county services and costs.
More decent housing is needed, but not necessarily new housing, he said. Many buildings have been torn down that could have been renovated; as a result the housing goes off tax rolls. The assessed tax valuation goes down, and when the cost of services remains the same, tax rates must go up. Many people don't understand that, he said.
Maybe things will change, and maybe that change will start with a dream on the riverfront.