ALTON — Two local mayors took on two very different tones Wednesday while discussing economic issues facing their municipalities.
Alton Mayor Brant Walker and East Alton Mayor Joe Silkwood addressed a crowd of RiverBend Growth Association members gathered at Alton’s IBEW Union Hall, 3945 Humbert Road, to touch on a number of topics relating to their communities. Walker expressed optimism in where Alton has been and where it’s going, saying more than 200 new businesses have opened in the city since he took office three years ago. He referenced a thriving Downtown Alton and growth in Upper Alton, North Alton and along Homer Adams Parkway as indications the city’s economy has taken a turn for the better.
Those developments have also made the city a more attractive destination for visitors and prospective homeowners, Walker said.
“I firmly believe that all the investments that we as a city have made into Alton clearly has made it a more desirable place to invest in,” Walker said. “In 2015, the total construction value of permits issued in the city was nearly $24 million; through the first half of 2016, the total construction value of permits was over $11 million. That represents some of the best permitting years this city has seen in over 20 years.”
Silkwood, meanwhile, took the opportunity to tout East Alton as a village ripe with opportunity for similar expansion as Alton has experienced in recent years. He identified growth along the Illinois 3 corridor, including the rundown Eastgate Plaza, as most important to the city’s future development, but said the village has a number of places ready and able to grow.
“We are looking for businesses,” Silkwood said. “We have opportunities.”
The mayors spoke and answered questions for more than 45 minutes.
Walker focused on the city’s parks, noting the more than $1 million in grants secured to improve the entrance to Gordon F. Moore Park and to construct a new pedestrian and bike path that will run through Rock Spring Park. He also touched on improvements to the ball fields, soccer fields, tennis courts and Oriental garden at Gordon Moore Park.
At Riverview Park, which Walker said was in “desperate need of repair,” a grant has helped the city with numerous fixes. Walker also highlighted the recent $17,700 donation from Ameren Illinois to fix the electrical and lighting at the park, which was failing. As part of the improvements, Walker said the electrical wiring was moved from under the bandstand, where it was located previously, which will allow the city to upgrade the bandstand. Walker said he hopes to have that part of the project completed sometime next year.
Proceeds from the recent Rock the Hops event in Downtown Alton will help with improvements at Northside Park. Walker said the improvements to the parks are especially important to attract new residents.
“The quality of life issues, when you look for communities (where) people want to live, your green spaces, your sustainability, your walking, your biking is very important,” Walker said. “We have really addressed a lot of our family park issues, and we continue to do that.”
The Alton Regional Multimodal Transportation Center is “progressing nicely,” he said. Weather permitting, Walker said structural steel could begin going up in the next few months, with completion of the $24 million grant-funded project targeted for June or July 2017.
The Liberty Bank Alton Amphitheater had another “successful” year, Walker said, with one more show, Travis Tritt, on Sept. 9, left in this year’s concert series.
The Alton Food Truck Festival, organized by Sauce Magazine, will be back with guarantees the event won’t be a repeat of last year, when food ran out quickly, Walker said. This year, 22 trucks will be at the event, compared to 11 last year. That event is coming up from 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, at the amphitheater.
In addition to growth, business retention has been a focus of his administration, Walker said. He and his staff have been on more than 130 “retention visits” to businesses in the past three years. The visits have helped business owners with signage issues, stormwater issues, and even led to the city facilitating one business’ move to a new location within Alton.
Walker expressed his belief that public safety is the top priority for a mayor, making note of the city’s resilience through a number of environmental challenges in recent years.
Regarding Alton Square Mall, Walker said there has been “quite a bit of momentum” for growth at the mall. Between the opening of Ross Dress for Less, the expansion of Maurice’s and the growth of Hibbett Sports, the mall has seen more than $1 million in investments in recent years.
The city’s Public Works Department, Parks and Recreation Department and Sewer Maintenance Department are “working aggressively” to help citizens with quality of life and infrastructure issues, Walker said. The city recently replaced sewers along Broadway, College Avenue, State Street, Piasa Street and Forest Drive, among others, according to Walker, and the city has begun work on the first phase of the combined sewer separation on State Street. Once completed, Walker said the next target will be the Christian Hill area, Bluff Street and Foulds Street, with hopes of completing those projects before the end of the calendar year.
More than $4 million in federal grants and county assistance has been secured by the city for repavement of College Avenue and installation of Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant curb ramps and revamping of sections of Douglas Street, Blair Avenue, Clawson Street and Buena Vista, just to name a few, Walker said.
Finding a buyer and developer for the Eastgate Plaza property is near the top of the village’s wish list, Silkwood said. Plaza owners are asking $1.5 million for the 25-acre property and have indicated they don’t have any interest in redeveloping the property themselves, Silkwood said.
“The mayor of East Alton and the board in the village of East Alton is very, very motivated to work with new investors in our community, and to work with someone at that location,” Silkwood said. “Somebody is going to make some money (at that location).”
At 5 p.m. Wednesday, the Walgreens location at 550 W. St. Louis Ave. closed its doors for good. The East Alton location was one of 200 pharmacies across the country the company closed. Silkwood said the closing “really hurts us, but it also creates opportunity.
“We’re confident that that’d be a good opportunity for something else to go in there,” Silkwood said of the 14,000-square-foot, 5-year-old building.
Landmarks Illinois, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of Illinois’ architectural and historical resources, hopes to have an estimate on how much it would cost a developer to rehabilitate the iconic Citizens Bank building by the end of the month, Silkwood said. The village, which owns the rundown property, would publicize that information in hopes of finding a prospective developer. Silkwood said the village would gladly give it to a developer for next to nothing if they had intentions of restoring the building to productive use.
“We’ll do all the things we can do to publicize that and say, ‘Look, if you’re interested in this building, this is how much they think it’s going to cost to rehab this building. And with that, we’ll sell it to you for a dollar,’” Silkwood said. “And I’ll give you the dollar.”
Silkwood said the village will eventually be forced to make a “business decision” and demolish the building if it can’t find a developer willing to invest in it.
A “shining star” of development is the Emerald Ridge housing community built in 2014, Silkwood said. Developers have begun preliminary discussions on a second phase of the project, but it’s “way early” at this point, he said.
The village’s annual Soap Box Derby, in its 23rd year, will be Saturday, Sept. 10. Races will start at 10 a.m. and end around 2 p.m., Silkwood said, and community members can register their children at the village’s Keasler Recreation Center.
Wilshire Village also has some vacancies, Silkwood said, and the village may be able to extend some incentives as well. Silkwood said the property may also be for sale and that he would like to see some local owners — the current owner lives in Tulsa, Okla., Silkwood said — for that and other properties in town.
Village workers are in the process of finishing up work on Shamrock Street, Silkwood said. Some patching in other areas will be next on the agenda.