The Galesburg Papers, Part 2: The Cure

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What are the vital signs we’ll need to consider as we work to help Galesburg recover and thrive? We know a budget doesn’t tell us everything, so what do we use? Since it’s not a true, precise estimation, we can’t use the $20-foot-per-year number for everything. (But city staff should be able to calculate an average cost estimation like that.) What’s an easily calculated metric that tells us if we’re reaching potential financial solvency?

The primary metric we should be looking at is private investment vs. public investment. Or, in other terms, the total actual value of all the properties in Galesburg in a ratio against the value of our city’s capital assets. As mentioned before, Galesburg has a total value of $1.29 billion. We can see in this city financial document (on page 72 of the PDF) that the city has $122,621,491 in capital assets, which includes all owned land, buildings, vehicles and machines, and infrastructure. If we take a ratio of the two, we see we have a 10.5:1 ratio, or $10.50 in actual property values versus every $1 of public investment. 

10.5:1 isn’t great, but it isn’t the worst. Lafayette, Louisiana, has a ratio of .5:1, or 50 cents of actual value for every dollar of public investment. They are SEVERELY underwater financially, but that doesn’t mean we are in good shape, either. 

What would be a good ratio for us, one that sets us up to be able to pay our bills? The range set out by Strong Towns, the organization that inspired most of this analysis, is somewhere between $20–40 to $1. Earlier I had mentioned we would need $3.6 Billion in actual value to cover our road expenses. If we divide that by our capital assets, we get a ratio of approximately 30:1, so $30 in actual value for every dollar of public investment. So we need to grow our property values by three times to be able to be a financially healthy city.

Growing our wealth by three times—how do we go about this?

The Game Plan

We first need to invest rigorously in our downtown. We need to direct every development we can to downtown, because the rates of return for the city are higher there than anywhere else in town. Higher property values mean more money for our schools and county as well, not just our city, so all the local governments should be joining in on this.

Downtown is a place that thrives when there are more people there. People like to go where people are, so I believe we can set a positive spiral going, but we need to make Main Street specifically more of a place for people. Currently, it’s a four-lane highway that is a major road through town. It’s hard for it to be a place for people with cars zipping by, trying to make the next light. We don’t need to get rid of the cars, but we need to redesign Main Street, and all the streets downtown, to be places cars go to, and not a place cars pass through. The space needs to be designed for people first and cars last. If we’re able to make downtown a better place for people to exist, then it’ll create more demand for the area and help it become a profitable area to invest in. Our country has an extreme shortage of walkable areas, so if we can make ours one, there’s demand for it.

Our second priority needs to be encouraging small developers to do infill projects on all of our vacant lots. We do not need to open up any more land outside of town to development. If anyone wants to build outside of the 74–34 border we can’t afford to run services to them, because it won’t be profitable for the city. We already have plenty of plots of land that have sewer and street access; we don’t need to build any more. If we can fill our empty plots within town, that will get us more revenue against our current expenses without any additional infrastructure cost to the city.

Thirdly, we need to update our zoning code to not only accommodate infill projects better, but we need to be able to increase our density incrementally. Denser buildings equal higher returns on city infrastructure, which is what we need. We need ways that neighborhoods can change over time, not sit under glass like it’s in a museum because the zoning won’t allow change.

Take, for instance, this lot on Seminary, just north of downtown:

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