DIXON – Just about every town has its naysayers, an author said Wednesday.
“Are you going to listen to curmudgeons who always say, ‘That won’t work here,’?” Jack Schultz asked an audience at Sauk Valley Community College.
Peru didn’t. And it paid off in a big way.
Schultz, author of “Boomtown USA: The 7 1⁄2 Keys to Big Success in Small Towns,” spoke about the experience of Interstate 80 being built by LaSalle and Peru in the early 1960s.
Click here to watch video Jack Schultz's presentation at SVCC
Each town knew it would need to pay for infrastructure to develop near I-80.
Peru went ahead. LaSalle didn’t.
Peru’s leaders got grief for their decision, which required a $100,000 investment. These days, though, Peru has six times more retail sales than its twin, thanks to the interstate development, Schultz said. That means $5 million per year in added local sales tax revenue for the citizens of Peru, according to his book.
Schultz pointed to Rochelle as a town that had done a good job of taking advantage of its assets. Jason Anderson, executive director of the Greater Rochelle Economic Development Corp., read “Boomtown” 6 years ago, saying he used the book to help guide his work.
He said Rochelle had done much over the last 30 years to develop its economy. But after reading the book, he realized there was more work.
“We had stuff we weren’t leveraging,” Anderson said.
Years ago, he said, the city didn’t take advantage of its railroads. Instead, residents saw them as annoyances because two railroads crossed, causing backups in town. Local leaders decided to build a shortline that would give businesses a chance to access the two railroads, Anderson said. That led to 1,400 jobs, he said.
The town also overlooked its airport, he said. These days, the community promotes it, which resulted in the Chicagoland Skydiving Center, Anderson said.
The town also created the Rochelle Business and Technology Park, which has brought companies such as Allstate.
In an earlier meeting with Sauk Valley Media’s editorial board, Anderson said leaders need to work together to get things done. And that takes more than mayors having coffee, referring to the Sterling and Rock Falls mayors’ get-togethers.
“It takes people outside the political realm,” Anderson said, stressing public-private partnerships.
Schultz, whose book suggests ways small towns can boost their economies, said the Rock River is a huge asset for the Sauk Valley. He praised efforts to get a trail all along the river.
“Your downtowns have a sense of place,” he said during the editorial board meeting. “People are looking for quality of life and a sense of place.”
But he said area towns need to reverse their gradually increasing median ages.
Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, the U.S. median age jumped from 35.3 to 37.2. Whiteside and Lee counties’ median ages are considerably higher than the national median, 41.8 and 42, respectively.
Schultz said he has gone to towns whose median ages have increased to the mid-50s. At that point, he said, “you don’t come back.”
Anderson, who lives in Dixon, said he likes how his town has leveraged assets such as the riverfront and Ronald Reagan. He noted the recent Mumford & Sons concert that doubled the town’s population, which he said happened largely because of riverfront improvements.
He also praised the commercial corridor on Sterling’s Lincolnway.
“I’d kill to have that in Rochelle,” he said, adding that Rochelle is too close to bigger towns such as DeKalb and Rockford.
He said Sterling is capitalizing on the fact that the Sauk Valley is an island commercially, far away from bigger markets.
During the editorial board meeting, Anderson called Sauk Valley Community College an “underused” asset on a four-lane highway. He suggested Sterling, Rock Falls and Sterling combine their high schools into a campus at Sauk. That would expand students’ opportunities and probably reduce property taxes, he said.
The current high schools could be used for other purposes. The park districts could take over the recreational facilities, and Sterling and Dixon high schools could be converted into housing for senior citizens, both of which are near hospitals, he said.
But Anderson acknowledged the political difficulties of convincing leaders to consolidate high schools.
Anderson and Schultz spoke as part of the second Sauk Valley Symposium, which is part of an effort to focus on reviving the local economy.