Community Building -- Getting It Right By Testing Assumptions

Too many community-building practitioners cling to the notion that jobs alone build community. But, are jobs enough to attract and retain talent? Workforce training, manufacturing plants, and warehouses are touted as solutions. Creating a day labor center is not community-building. There is more to livability than a job and there is more to community-building than roads, workforce training, and the next Toyota plant.

Downstate Illinois continues to bleed population. One side argues the cause is lack of opportunity, while the other sides argues it’s taxes. But maybe, just maybe, downstate Illinois isn’t paying enough attention to livability.

Some regions in downstate Illinois have the bones to host the best bedroom communities in the Midwest, if we can recognize and appreciate the connection between community-building and destination-building. Instead of prioritizing blue-collar employment centers and giving handsome tax breaks to encourage large out-of-state companies to move here, why not give equal attention to the livability of our metro north collar corridor of Greater St. Louis. With its proximity to the largest population center in downstate Illinois, our Metro North could be a preferred relocation destination for young families, professionals, and retirees, if we build livable communities and reveal a unique and vibrant regional brand.

There is nothing wrong with pursuing revenue generated by large employment centers, if revenues are dedicated to building great schools, great parks, great business districts and vibrant downtowns with preferred housing choices.

There is obvious value in having a skilled workforce. Relevant skill sets and proficiency create career opportunities and can attract employer and investor interest. Having great transportation corridors, access, and distribution centers in the Midwest at America’s crossroads is a no-brainer. Attracting advanced manufacturing and repurposing our built environment to accommodate next generation employment opportunities makes total sense. But, as so many communities and regions are discovering, it’s not enough. You also need great neighborhoods, great schools, access to quality affordable child care and housing, open space and parks, vibrant downtowns and entertainment districts, and unique natural and cultural assets that are stewarded. Perhaps, more importantly, you need a sense of direction and purpose!

We could be that place. But, we cannot simply beat the drum and crow about how great a place this is, or could be. We have to build the communities we want and each of us deserve.

Instead of chasing big employers and opportunistic developers, we need to be chasing young families, retirees, and talent. Talent is looking for a great place to live and most talent already has a job. Alas, activating placemaking and transformative change that is impactful and moves the needle of real change is much more complex than having an interstate nearby and competing for the next Amazon center. I believe we are finding that out.

Our Metro North has a chance to get it right. We have the right cultural and natural assets to build on, but chasing one-and-off development schemes won’t get us there. We need to build affordable destinations where people want to work, play, and raise a family.

Arriving at a well-informed, balanced approach to growth that weaves economic pursuits with place-making in a planned for manner is overdue. Our region has need of a brand promise that reveals a forward-leaning, planned for activation strategy. To get there, we will need a highly collaborative effort across jurisdictions leveraged with regional cooperation and smart (not exploitive) public/private investment.

Regional and local comprehensive plans are essential. They must be updated and drive key milestone attainment using an annualized performance-based and measured campaign to reveal and report direction and betterment.

It’s time to test our assumptions about growth and livability and affirm a shared commitment to community-building that matters. We can no longer afford a custodial approach to civic matters. Keeping busy with good intentions isn’t enough. We must find the capacity, purpose, and resolve to be difference-makers and remake downstate Illinois into a preferred relocation destination that boasts high scores on each of the attributes or key performance indicators of community livability.

We cannot continue to settle for less. Our Metro North region could be a model for real change. Let’s begin!

Cory M Jobe
President & CEO
Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau

Patrick S. McGinnis
Resilient Communities Group