Thursday, January 18, 2007

Cole-Simon Showdown Looms in Carbondale

Illinois Rte. 13, the main east-west drag through the southern Illinois City of Carbondale, in Jackson County, is like a boulevard straight from an old Frank Capra movie. Entering students at Southern Illinois University (SIU) have to be struck by the small-town charm of the dual one-way streets housing a business distrinct in between.There are ample shopping and dining opportunities in what will be their home for four years. Few cities in the state are surrounded by so many state parks, lakes, wildlife refuges and nature preserves. And for those who pine for an occasional night in the big city, St. Louis is only an hour and a half away.

But in the early years of the decade, many had come to think a sort of 'Potterville' was beginning to intrude on their wonderful life. Some shops had closed down leaving only blight behind. Housing starts had slowed to barely one a month. Ugly, unkempt vacant lots, broken windows and peeling paint were becoming an ever more common eyesore. For most, if you didn't have a job at the University or the hospital, you were either a student or unemployed. Business owners complained that the city wasn't interested in helping them - and more businesses were looking for a way out than were looking for a way in.

Though Jackson County is conservative territory Carbondale, like most college towns, leans Democrat. Though city elections are non-partisan, the mayor's office was almost always held by a Democrat.

But in 2003, then 30-year-old Brad Cole thought he saw an opportunity, both for himself and the city. Cole had received both his undergraduate and law degrees from SIU. He served a term as student body president there in the early 90s. He had a good feel for the school and its culture. He had served as a deputy chief of staff to former Gov. George Ryan, so he had a feel for politics. Cole believed that reigniting economic development was key to putting the city on the move again. To do that one had to treat business owners as partners rather than adversaries. He was also convinced that students at SIU should be treated as residents of the city, not as transients. So he launched his uphill campaign for mayor, rallying both business leaders and, surprisingly, college students behind his bid.

It worked, but just barely. Cole eked out a nail-biting victory of just a few hundred votes and set to work on the revitalization he had promised.

By all accounts, including many local otherwise left-leaning blogs, his tenure has been a huge success. He established the city's first-ever tax-increment financing (TIF) district and used it to clean up 30 acres of downtown blight, transforming it into prime real estate. Housing starts are up to 200 per year, more each month than were started each year when he took over. To underline the common missions the city and SIU share, all campus property was annexed into the corporate city limits. Cole got $750,000 in state grants to start work on a central public safety center. He had originally proposed eliminating the city's share of property tax while a member of the city council and has kept that tax off the books during his tenure. He promises that as long as he is mayor the city will not collect a property tax.

The coalition of university students he rallied around him was not just a one-time stunt to get elected. Since starting his term he has regularly appointed students to local boards and commissions.

"I believe the college students should be treated just like any other resident," Cole commented, adding it would be foolish to waste the great resource those students represent during the time they are part of the community.

In perhaps one of the most intriguing developments - and one particularly appropriate to building a vibrant central city in a college town, Cole plans to make all of downtown, including public parks, WiFi accessible.

Meantime, to keep economic development simmering and relations with the business community strong, Cole started a Business Development Roundtable with members from local government, industry, retail and the college which meets quarterly.

Cole plans to duplicate the same coalition that got him elected the first time around, only this time with the added benefit of a record to run on - and one that has seen dramatically improved relations between the city, the people who do business there, and the university.
Jackson County Republican Chairman John Tourville thinks it will be a hotly contested race, as the city has traditionally leaned Democrat, but believes Cole's successful tenure has done a lot to make the race more manageable. Perhaps a notable tealeaf to be read is that while in most places in 2006, Republicans were being washed away in a Democratic tidal wave, Jackson County made Republican gains, including the pickup of an open county board seat previously held by Democrats. Significantly, that seat included precincts in the City of Carbondale.
Tourville knows how important the mayor's seat is and promises that the Republican Committee will actively work for Cole. "We will work hard for him," Tourville said.
Carbondale holds a non-partisan primary on Feb. 27. The top two vote-getters in that battle will face each other on April 17. Though three other candidates have filed, everyone expects the ultimate battle to be between Cole and Sheila Simon.

Simon is the daughter of the late Sen. Paul Simon. She has served as a city council member for the last three years, working on both the planning commission and energy and environmental advisory committee. She is an attorney who has taught law at SIU for the last seven years. Before that Simon was an Asst. State's Atty. and worked in private practice. Surprisingly, to this point, though she has been running since last summer, Simon has offered no specific criticisms of Cole's tenure or specific plans on what she would do. (Not to worry for those who think I am too partisan - at the end of this I will print the website addresses for both Cole and Simon. You can judge for yourself.) But that is not to say she is anything other than a formidable candidate. Besides being listed as a key target for 2007 by the Illinois Democratic Network, the Democrats are marshalling their big guns on her behalf. Both Democratic Senators, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama have already been out on her behalf.

Locals, though, are puzzled by the high-profile support of former city planner Tom Redmond on her behalf. Many consider his chilly and sometimes adversarial relations with the business community as one of the reasons Cole won the first time.

A quick survey (by NO means scientific) of locals - and peeking into local blog sites indicates that unless Simon gets specific and offers some compelling reason for change, Cole should win re-election, provided he runs a solid campaign and doesn't get swamped by outside money.
For more information on the candidates, visit Brad Cole's website at www.teambrad.com and Sheila Simon's website at www.sheilasimon.com.

Cross-posted at www.illinoisreview.typepad.com

1 comments:

Frank,  5:40 PM  

Good thing people don't vote on looks alone, Brad would win by a landslide and he isn't that great looking either.

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