Photo by Fred Pollard
On Saturday, Alton Mayor Brant Walker announced his decision to run for a second term in the April 2017 election. Walker includes infrastructure, new business, tourism attractions and improved relations between residents and the police department among his accomplishments.
While national debates for public office are playing out like a schoolyard fight or an episode of reality television, Alton Mayor Brant Walker prefers to reflect on his accomplishments while already planning for his next term.
“For years now, I have said over and over that if you want a better future, build it,” he says. “It comes down to quality of life. Very methodically, we have been rebuilding, repairing and restoring. That has been a big focus of our administration.”
Sitting in city hall in an office that’s seldom closed, Walker alternates between resting back in his chair and leaning forward intently as he discusses his plans for the city he leads.
“Decisions you make can impact people’s lives dramatically; you have to take that seriously,” he says. “I have to take into consideration every side of the coin, and I want to do the best job that I can for the people who allow me to serve them.
“This experience has really taught me how to look through other people’s eyes and try to put myself in their shoes before I come to any decision. In the public sector, you really have to take your time and weigh the gravity of the outcome. It forces you to see things differently, and that has been eye-opening for me.”
On Sept. 24, Walker officially announced his intention to run for re-election in next spring’s election. Reiterating the number one responsibility of a mayor is public safety, he says the city’s police and fire departments have stepped up and made the city better.
“Our police department is great, and the focus is not ‘what happened’ but rather ‘what didn’t happen,’” he says. “The bridges of communication are open, and it shows in our numbers. Over three years, our crime is down 5.8 percent over the previous three years, and that is a big number considering Alton is dealing with historically low crime numbers.
“We work with everyone across racial and economic divides, and I am very proud of that.”
Infrastructure has been another focus, with an abundance of road and sidewalk repair in the last 14 months.
“There are a lot of projects in the works right now, and our work is not finished,” he says. “We have more than $4 million in infrastructure work coming, including Washington Avenue, Broadway and State Street. We are talking big portions of roads.”
Walker says repairs and upgrades on parks have occurred throughout the city, in lower socioeconomic areas as well as more affluent neighborhoods, in an attempt to make the city aesthetically pleasing as a whole.
“The gazebo at Riverview Park, the repaving of the basketball courts, lighting and bathrooms at (James H.) Killion Park at Salu, and I don’t even know where to begin on all of the work that has been done at Rock Spring Park,” he says. “It is really important that kids have a clean, safe environment to play in, and if you want to see neighborhood turnaround, you have to have good green spaces. We are doing that.”
When it comes to receiving infrastructure grants, most are done on a grading scale. On a “not by neighborhood, but by need” basis, cities go up against other municipalities to be awarded that funding, and Walker says requests for the most urgent repairs ensure a better chance.
In terms of new business, the mayor says more than 200 new business licenses have been issued, and he has made 130 business retention visits to get feedback from owners.
“A lot of commercial activity has come to the city, and now we are starting to see the residential come behind it,” he says.
He also credits his term with upgrading and updating the city’s online presence and information available.
“When I took office, we were using typewriters and carbon paper,” he says. “I can understand how people would think we were not user friendly, but over the last three years, we have worked hard. Getting an entire city on the same page online was a massive undertaking, but it is 100 percent better now.
“This is the first time in the city’s history that we are all on the same operating system and network, and we will also soon have two IT employees for the first time.”
When it comes to city employees, Walker says his team has been instrumental in what he calls the successful turnaround of Alton in the last four years.
“I am very fortunate to have the quality staff that we have here,” he says. “The entire administration is on the same page, and I think it is showing in our results. I would put this management team up against any city’s team in the country. These people are just that good.”
If one event stands out for the mayor during his first term, it is the community response when the waters of the Mississippi threaten downtown business, particularly last December.
“Some of the best things I have seen have been caused by the worst things I have seen,” he says. “Four of the top ten largest floods have happened, and two of those times we had to evacuate the marina. I have never seen so many people rally together, and citizens came out to save our city, erecting a flood wall in a little over 20 hours. It was incredible to watch that Great Wall of Alton go up.”
The road to mayor
Walker opened Strategic Search Solutions, a job placement facility, in Alton in 1999. When asked about the motivations to give up his business and run for his first term as mayor, he pauses, and it’s obvious he has been so focused on the present he has to stop to remember the past.
“The condition and the deterioration of our neighborhoods alarmed me, and our economic development was sorely lacking,” he says. “My office on Highland and Brown gave me a direct view of the neighborhood as problems increased, and I thought to stem that tide we had to directly go after those issues. Since I have lived in Alton, I have helped restore 15 properties. When I bought it, I didn’t see my office as dilapidated. I saw the plaster on the floors and the galvanized plumbing and saw the potential for a beautiful building.
“Start your business here, build your business here, and reinvest in your community. That is how you turn your city around, and that is what I wanted to do as mayor.”
Perceived as what he terms a “long shot to win,” Walker beat incumbent mayor Tom Hoechst as a write-in candidate after being removed from the ballot by the electoral board and running a grassroots campaign. In the ensuing term, Walker touts multiple accomplishments, including $56 million in capital investment in the form of building permits, a decrease in the unemployment rate from 11.6 percent to 7.4 percent, the reinstitution of the police department’s bike patrols, and the number of national acts brought to the Liberty Bank Alton Amphitheater in recent years such as Kenny Rogers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“In 2013, Alton had just over $481 million in retail sales, the lowest number since 2001,” he says. “In 2015 … Alton had over $514 million in retail sales.
“In the past three and a half years, Alton has emerged from the doldrums of stagnation. We have witnessed immense progress, and we have built a safer, stronger and more prosperous city.”
Braving oppressive heat last Saturday, Walker officially announced his run for re-election in front of the fountain at Rock Spring Park, as dozens of citizens and supporters looked on.
“Now is not the time to go back to the old way of doing business that left our city on the verge of collapse,” he said. “If there is one thing I have learned since becoming mayor, it’s that it’s a bad bet to bet against the people of Alton. We always come together, we always rally, and we always succeed. With your help, we will win in Alton and build on the progress we have made while continuing the work to make Alton the envy of our region.”
Brant Walker’s bid for re-election is being challenged by local businessman Scott Dixon, Alton Police Department Lt. Dan Rauschkolb and community activist Joshua Young. The mayoral election will be April 4.