Sunday, January 27, 2008

It's About Our Kids!

I wrote an op-ed piece for our local newspaper on a referendum for a new Sports Center in Effingham, IL. Here is what I wrote:

Over the past three years I’ve been invited to tour and talk in almost 300 towns in 44 states as a result of the research for my book, BoomtownUSA: The 7 ½ Keys to Big Success in Small Towns. I’ve gotten the opportunity to see the good, the bad and the ugly, but mostly seen some wonderful examples of what other towns are doing to make themselves more attractive for the future, in the hopes that their children will one day return home.

In studying these many towns, scattered all over our great country, I’ve become convinced that towns only get a finite number of chances to be able to transform themselves for the better. Some take advantage of these chances, create new opportunities, entice their young people to move back home and continue the process of reinvention. Others, miss these opportunities, become less attractive as a community and slowly age in place. Eventually they reach a “tipping point” when there are virtually no young families left in the town and the town slowly dies.

In my 55 years, all largely spent living in Effingham County, I’ve witnessed five major events that have either transformed the community or are having such an impact today. My five are: The rebuilding of St. Anthony Hospital after its devastating fire; construction of Lake Sara; Interstates 57/70 intersecting here; recruitment of the World Color Press headquarters; and the much newer Rosebud Theater. Each of these projects required the vision of one or a group of local citizens and a concerted effort by many in the community to happen, resulting in incredibly positive progress and growth. As I reflect upon each of these projects, they were not without controversy. There were always some who questioned their value or found fault with what was proposed. However, through vision and determination, each became reality and has in their own way had a tremendous impact in both creating new businesses and jobs or in improving the quality of life in the community which ultimately helps to attract and retain quality families.

But, we’ve had other community-altering projects get away. Because we never experienced them, we can never know how they might have positively impacted us. Some that come to mind are: The Lake Land College Campus; Louisville Lake; Caterpillar Plant and Future Gen. Thankfully, Effingham will still benefit greatly from Mattoon’s recruitment of the Future Gen project.

I believe that we have an opportunity for another community transforming project in the proposed Sports Center. This project would be the premier sports complex for within a 60 to 100 mile radius, offering such amenities as an ice rink and competitive swimming pool. It would not only help the community to become an amateur sports mecca for competitive teams in the Midwest but also greatly help to improve the quality of life in Effingham County which gives us a better opportunity to make us more attractive as a place where our young people want to move back home.

Effingham’s unique location and past visionary leadership has positioned us to both leverage these advantages and become a leader in amateur sports, but also to easily and conservatively pay for a project like the Sports Center. The many motel rooms (1,300+) will provide the bulk of the funding in the form of the Tourism Fund with the balance coming from specific TIF Districts set up many years ago in Effingham and which are now being copied by many neighboring towns. An additional “backstop” of a $3 million permanent endowment is being raised (70%+ completed) by the Effingham County Community Foundation to cover any potential operating shortfall. Incredibly, no funds are being used from the general funds or from general property taxes for this project, something that few other communities would be able to accomplish.

I’ve seen many projects like the Sports Center in my travels around the USA. Towns like Estherville, IA (population 6,656); Sioux Center, IA (population 6,002); Highland, IL (population 8,438); Duncan, OK (population 22,505; and Marshall, MN (population 12, 735) have already built and successfully operate similar facilities. As I visited these towns I often wondered why we couldn’t have something like this in Effingham County. If these towns, often much smaller and without our resources, could do such projects, why shouldn’t our young people have the same, especially when you consider our major natural attribute of a central location along a north-south and east-west interstate.

Trying to put together a project like the Sports Center is a complicated one. It takes a great deal of time, false starts and constant reengineering. There are a lot of moving parts and it is often complicated to explain. Opposition is much easier. All the opponents have to float is their often used phrases of, “Taxes and special interests” without having to fully explain either, only playing upon the natural fears of many people. In my research I’ve found opponents like this in every town. They are usually referred to as CAVE People, or Citizens Against Virtually Everything!

But while the CAVEs would like to frame their opposition around taxes and special interests, the real discussion should revolve around our young people and the future of our town. I’m convinced that one of the greatest assets that we produce in Effingham County is our young people. We give them a great education, impart a wonderful sense of morals and instill in them a tremendous work ethic. But, we often don’t offer them the opportunities that they can find in larger cities and we lose them. What can we do to keep more of them in Effingham County?

All of my ongoing research shows that this next generation is going to be much different from my Baby-Boomer Generation or that of my parent’s Greatest Generation. This next generation, called the Millennial Generation, is taking a different approach to where they want to live and work. Our older generations tended to look at where the best job opportunities were and moved to those opportunities. Due to the projected and growing worker shortage in the USA, the Millennial Generation is more inclined to choose where they want to live first, figuring that they are good enough “free agents” to be able to find the job that they want after they decide where they want to live. They are going to be more attracted to where the quality of life is the best and employers will flock to where they congregate. It is a paradigm shift and those towns that figure it out first are the ones that will set themselves apart and have the best opportunity to recruit them back home. The Sports Center is one of those quality of life components that are going to become much more important for towns like Effingham in the future.

The proponents of the Sports Center argue that Effingham has the potential to become the “Youth Sports Capital of America”, something that on its face might seem preposterous. However, I’ve seen towns much smaller than Effingham that envisioned themselves as the Bavarian Village (Leavenworth, WA—population 2,074), Christmas Town (Frankenmuth, MI—population 4,838), Orthopedic Capital (Warsaw, IN—population 12,415), Race City USA (Mooresville, NC—population 18,823), or my favorite, Branson, MO (population 6,050) as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Each of these towns was much smaller than Effingham when they started with one small project like the Sports Center and grew it from there. And, each of these towns continues to grow, creating new jobs and opportunities in a dynamic manner. It is not a zero-sum game with winners and losers, rather each project led to more people visiting , more businesses being started, new jobs created, resulting in other community-improving projects. In the end the success in the community becomes self fulfilling, resulting in the rising tide lifting all of “the boats” in the community.

Neighboring state capital, Indianapolis, set about to become the “Amateur Sports Capital of the World” in the mid 80s. At the time they were ridiculed. My wife and I first started going to Indianapolis for one of their first major events, the Pan Am Games in 1987, having always being drawn to St. Louis prior to that. Since then we’ve been amazed at how Indianapolis has built upon their self proclaimed moniker to truly become what they set out to do. The NCAA moved its headquarters to the town, agreed to play its NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis every fourth or fifth year (men’s 2006 & 2010; women’s 2005 & 2011), and many other events have moved their competitions to city. Today if you Google “Indianapolis Amateur Sports Capital of the World” you will get over 350,000 separate mentions.

Much smaller Columbus, IN (population 39,059) decided to pursue midwestern amateur sporting events a few years ago, hosting 35 such events in 2005 and 67 in 2006. A study of the 2005 events showed that they drew 34,515 athletes and spectators, generating an estimated $9.6 million in revenue to the community.

The Sports Center is the type of project that can transform a town and a region. It is visionary, well thought out, conservatively financed and is a positive step-up for all of us. Most importantly, it will help us to keep our young people (your kids and grandkids) in the community and help us build for a better future. Will our future be brighter than our past?

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