Opinion

Another week, another request for rezoning at Ash Avenue in Decatur.  This time the planning commission rejected the rezoning request to build an insurance office on the corner of Ash Avenue.  The city indicated that they are interested in planned development for the area, which on one hand I’m very pleased to hear but on the other, I’m concerned that the public won’t know what those plans are or be instrumental in developing them.

I’ve written several times about this issue because this particular area of the city is constantly in the crosshairs of commercial development.  The area is primarily residential today, though Mound Plaza and the Walmart shopping area, has entered the picture over the past 20 years or so.  Finding the right balance in the area is going to require a strong commitment to preserving the character of the neighborhoods.

ash west

Neighborhood on the west and part of the property requesting rezoning

I’m always concerned that the persuasive power of big business and the lure of tax revenue will cause the council to lose focus.  So I hope that planned development will help but I’d like to see the plans.  What is the vision?  I’d also like the opportunity to be involved with the planning.

ash avenue east

Southeast corner of Ash Ave

What District 61 did for the high schools a few years ago is a great template to use.  That was something I participated in and it was a transparent process.  The public was extremely instrumental in choosing the renovation plan the school district put forth.  The blueprints were literally rolled out on tables for all to see and comment on.  It was a bottom up approach to governing that worked very well.  I’m encouraging the city to do the same, not just for Ash Avenue, but for many other parts of the city as well.  It’s a process that builds trust, a greater sense of community, and ultimately a more prosperous city.

 

Read more

After listening to the council meeting last night about video gaming, I went away with a big headache.  A handful of residents, mostly business owners, spoke before the council regarding gaming revenue.  It was educational.

We have to go back first to when the council first approved gaming in Decatur.  I remember the meetings very well.  The council members saw it as a way to boost existing businesses, primarily bars, who have seen their profits shrink since a statewide smoking ban was put into effect and of course, the Great Recession.  The city wasn’t expecting to make significant revenue from video gaming.  The city’s cut is only 5%, while the state makes out like a bandit with a sizeable chunk.  Councilman Funk called the state’s motives a “revenue grab”.

The possibility of gaming parlors locating in nearly every strip mall in town was nowhere on anybody’s radar at the time.  It certainly wasn’t discussed at the council meetings back then.  I’m sure nobody would have predicted that nearly $70,000,000 would be placed into the 350+ slot machines in Decatur in just 2015 alone.  Nobody dreamed there would be 350+ slot machines by 2016 to begin with.  Illinois now has more slot machines than Nevada.

Because there are so many slot machines in Decatur, local businesses have seen their revenue from gaming machines cut by nearly 50% in the past year or so.  The pieces of the pie are simply too small to go around.

What irked me the most about the meeting is that nobody on the council really offered any solutions.  Overall, they seemed reluctant to do anything.  Raising terminal fees was discussed and I expect that to happen soon.  Most of all, the term “free market” kept being thrown around.  The council hopes that the free market will determine when the area has been over-saturated.  I think it already has but that isn’t stopping new parlors from opening up, sucking more life out of our local businesses.

It seems like we should be able to zone areas properly so that gaming parlors aren’t popping up anywhere and everywhere.  However, if you take a look at the city map indicating liquor licenses, which are where most of the gaming machines are located, they aren’t in the “nice” neighborhoods. The inner-city has to put up with the worst of everything.  How are we supposed to redevelop neighborhoods when we congregate the most undesirable businesses inside them?  What a mess!

I think the licenses should be capped.  It’s obvious the free market isn’t working, at least not in ways that benefit local businesses, which was supposed to be the whole point.

As a full disclaimer, I don’t go to bars and I don’t even drink but many of our locally-owned bars do contribute in positive ways to the community, unlike out-of-state parlors.  There’s countless benefits, sport’s team sponsorships, and other charitable giving that comes from responsible bars.  These points were brought up by a local owner.  I had never really considered this aspect before.

I’m not saying people can’t place a bet here and there.  That’s their choice but I don’t think slot machines need to be available every twelve feet in the city.

More than anything, I haven’t talked to one person who likes what is becoming of Decatur, in regards to the gaming parlors.  It’s not the Decatur I want to live in.  If we’re trying to market Decatur in a positive light, then why are we settling for something that affects people’s lives and perceptions of Decatur so negatively?  It’s easy to answer that.  It may not have been about revenue for the city when they passed it but it sure is now.  This, many of us did foresee.

Read more

A few weeks ago the city council received data about the number of video gaming machines and the revenue generated from them.  I think everyone in the city is well aware that gaming machines are multiplying like rabbits within Decatur.  When the city council approved video gaming a few years ago, they assumed the machines would primarily be located in bars, not family restaurants and gaming parlors named after women.

In just a short drive down Oakland Avenue from Ravina Park Road to Pershing Road, I have my pick of at least four different places to gamble my life away.

I keep wondering how many people actually play slot machines?  Apparently, a whole bunch of people and they sure are willing to part with their money.  Below is a screen grab of the council meeting indicating the amount of dollars going in and out of the machines since 2012.

video gaming money in and out

In 2015, $69,681,280 was gambled.  Out of that $51,744,991 was paid back out.  Doing some simple arithmetic, we know that people placing bets in Decatur lost $17,936,289.  Nearly $70 million dollars was placed into slot machines in just 2015.  Holy throw your money in the trash Batman!

Just think if that $70 million had been thrown in a pot for city improvements.  Again, doing some simple math, including projected dollars for 2016, since 2012 people have bet $228,511,186. That’s $228 million dollars in just four years! We could have streets paved in gold in a couple decades, if that money was going for anything worthwhile.  In contrast, the city’s 5 cent gas tax for street improvements is bringing in a measly $1.5 million dollars a year, which means we’ll have streets paved in dirt in a couple decades. He-he

It just makes me sick.  Well, if we’re going to be stuck with the stupid things, let’s at least makes some real money off them.  For gaming parlors, I’d suggest raising the yearly permit fee to $1500 per machine.  For bars, eh maybe $500 and for family restaurants, I’m not sure.  I really don’t think they belong there in the first place.

I’m not sure what the actual fees should be.  I’d have to comb through the data more, and consult with experts but fees need to be enough to bring in significant revenue, yet not so much that we drive off business that can help fund city improvements.  It’s a fine line to walk.

And I used to think the city manager’s suggestion of $750 per machine was ridiculous.  After seeing these numbers, he was actually being very conservative.

On Monday, July 18th the city council will have a study session on video gaming.  Feel free to follow along as I live Tweet council meetings on my new Twitter account @decaturnavigatr.  That isn’t a typo.  Twitter doesn’t allow enough characters in the username for the blog name. I assume you can just search for Decatur Navigator on Twitter too.

 

Read more

Last night I learned that someone I grew up with and have admired for a number of years passed away in January.  Her younger brother and I were best friends in the neighborhood we grew up in on the north side of Decatur.  She was good friends with my oldest brother.  I was shocked to learn she had passed, and as I understand it her death was sudden and unexpected.  She was only 51 years old and leaves behind her husband of nearly 30 years and two young children.

She used to blog regularly and I always enjoyed reading her posts.  It wasn’t so much what she wrote that I found extraordinarily impressive but rather the peaceful spirit that emanated through her words. I always admired how positive and genuine she came across.  As someone who can go too heavy on the snark and sarcasm, I admired her steadfast kindness. I’m not the only one.  Reading through the comments left by others on her memorial page, everyone who met her, even briefly, felt the same way I did.

She had achieved great respect and success in the business world, working for some of the biggest corporate names as a marketing executive but she was down to earth and it was obvious she never let it go to her head.  Even though she had lived in Chicago, Japan, and New York City before settling in California, she never forgot Decatur.

When she was young she was always reading books.  She devoured books!  She had an insatiable appetite for knowledge. When she left for college, everyone expected great things from her and nobody was let down. She also never lost her passion for books and knowledge.  She aspired to be a writer, enjoyed photography and urban farming and was studying Mussar, Jewish spiritual teachings, shortly before she died.

Whenever I’d become dismayed with the world, which is easy to do today, I’d check out her Twitter feed.  She didn’t post often but her thoughts were always refreshing to my soul.  In a world where many people have mastered the art of being mean through social media, her words were like a refuge. She was genuine about it too.  She didn’t have to study self-help books and plaster her social feeds with inspirational memes to appear to be a good person.  It was just who she was and I admired her greatly for that.

It especially hit me hard that someone I had grown up with, in the neighborhood that I often write about, had passed away.  I’m getting to the age where it’s foolish to believe tomorrow is guaranteed. It’d be foolish to think I have all the time in the world to do the things I’d like to do, say the things I’d like to say, reconnect with people who mean the world to me, or be the person I’d like to be somewhere down the road when I finally get it all together.  I don’t think there’s any magical time or place when that happens.  Too many of us wait to live the life we’d like to live, not realizing no waiting is required to simply be a better person. Nobody remembers what we achieve in life nearly as much as how we treat others.  I definitely learned that from Sharon.  I can’t outdo Maya Angelou on the subject, so I’ll leave it with her words.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

 

 

 

Read more

Haines & Essick’s Closing

I was bummed when I learned that Haines & Essick’s was closing in Decatur.  It’s really the only store I regularly shopped at downtown.  It was always a nice escape during a busy week.  You just don’t get the same feeling shopping in a Walmart.  Walmart could be more entertaining but shopping in downtown was therapy, especially after shopping at Walmart.  Mostly, I enjoyed taking my kids there because it was a unique Decatur experience.  The old building, the squeaky floors, the musty basement smell filled the senses with time and history.  I hope another retailer or a few smaller retailers, assuming it will likely be divided up into smaller units, will fill the space.  I’d hate to think that I’ll never be able to step foot in that building again.  So much of old Decatur is gone and I don’t want to lose what little is left.

Decatur, You’re Killing Me!

Speaking of losing what little is left, I feel like my heart is being stabbed with a dull butter knife every time I drive through the intersection of Pershing and MacArthur.  Recently, two corner lots were rezoned for commercial purposes and that means dozens of old oaks are going to be cut down.  I actually wrote city council members about preserving those trees a few years ago because I knew, sooner or later, it would be targeted by a developer.  I tried to save them.  I can’t stand seeing them go.

Decatur Needs a Roadmap

Something that has become very apparent to me over the past year is that Decatur lacks a clear plan for development because some residents are left wondering if their neighborhood is safe from future changes.  The intersection of 51 and Ash Avenue comes to mind.

Residents were opposed to commercial development in their neighborhood, and a plan to develop in that area was shot down but it’s likely new fights will come.  In fact, our mayor said so.  What would be helpful would be a clearly communicated plan for future development and redevelopment.  It would avoid a lot of bad feelings and potentially derailing development that would be good for the city.

I think we should sit down with a map of Decatur and go through every single part of the city and state what our future objectives are.  The entire community should be involved.  Areas that we want to develop, get them ready for development.  Areas that we want to preserve, preserve them.  Areas that we want to redevelop, get a plan in place to do so.  Nobody should be left wondering what may become of their neighborhood.  I think it would be helpful for prospective new businesses too.  They would know they aren’t going to be up against a fight to locate in an area specifically designated for commercial development.  Yeah, we have zoning regulations that kinda does that but as we know, areas can be rezoned and that process can be very ugly and leave a lot of people disgusted with the city.

Most of all, I would like to see a plan in place that is going to ensure that those areas of the city that are stable and attractive to residents remain that way.  I want to ensure that those areas that need improvement are going to get it.  We’ve had too many examples of disrupting areas that are functioning well, especially on the north side of town.  I sure as heck don’t want our northside to become a congested commercial area, similar to Springfield’s west side.  It’s downright scary to drive over there and it looks terrible too.  Zero character.

We clearly need a plan for our northside that preserves what is good and develops in areas that make more sense.  For instance, getting a bridge over 72 on MLK would open up that area to development, and I don’t think many people would be opposed to it.  I know councilman Dawson has been pushing for a bridge for several years.  I’d like to see it happen too, rather than taking out a desirable neighborhood.  I think the neighborhood presents to outsiders what’s good about Decatur.  It’s welcoming.

Anyway, I think I’ve written enough for now and I need to get back to my ichthyology paper but it was so nice to write about Decatur again.  My months spent away from blogging about Decatur were downright miserable.

 

 

Read more