CARBONDALE — Halloween is back, there’s free Wi-Fi downtown, and Carbondale is on track for another low-crime year, Carbondale Mayor Mike Henry said during his yearly State of the City address.
Still, a little more outside investment wouldn’t hurt.
Henry’s annual progress report described a town seeking new development, but still deeply dependent on a few major employers, most notably Southern Illinois Healthcare — a local network of hospitals, clinics and specialists — and Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
One of the two is growing. The other, not so much.
SIH’s economic impact on the region was estimated at $1.5 billion dollars for this fiscal year, up from $1.12 billion in FY2014, according to company reports.
Henry touted SIH’s new 40,000-square-foot facility, being constructed near Memorial Hospital of Carbondale, which will house and train family doctors and physician assistants from the SIU School of Medicine.
The $17 million project, which could be completed by late next year, was “incentivized” by over $1 million in downtown sewer and sanitation improvements made by the city this year, Henry said.
As SIH grows, SIU Carbondale, the region’s largest employer, continues to shrink. Enrollment was down over 10 percent this year, and looks set for another big drop, administrators warn, since this year’s graduating senior class more than triples the number of enrolled freshmen.
Henry expressed confidence that SIUC would recover, and asked all Carbondale residents to lend a hand.
“As our university grows enrollment, they will prosper, as will we and the region.” Henry said. “I ask this of each of you: support the board of trustees, the administration and the faculty ... doing their best to restore this institution to its former greatness.”
Under Henry the city has taken that mission personally, he said. This fall, city employees hosted a dinner for new students and their families, and visited campus to help move them into their dorm rooms. Just two weeks ago, Henry addressed high-schoolers at an open house promoting the SIU College of Business.
The free Wi-Fi installed downtown, on Illinois Avenue between Town Square Pavilion and Mill Street, was another effort to buoy the university, Henry explained, as free internet access was the most-requested city improvement, in a recent survey of SIUC students.
Curiously, on the subject of SIUC’s academic reorganization, Henry offered a nearly verbatim repeat of the comments in his 2017 address.
“I certainly do not have the expertise to make any recommendations in this process, but I will say this — we cannot continue to operate as we have in the past,” he said then.
He said the same sentence this year, though he swapped the word "progress," for "process." His calls for support for the university also largely echoed last year's address.
This year, Henry touted several new businesses in town — Hilton Home2 Suites, Finish Line car wash, Omar’s gas station, Sterling Sofa Company, Family Drug, Stack’d 618 Crossfit and a new Remax office — plus a roster of new dining options, including Steak ‘n Shake in the SIUC Student Center, The Underground Public House, Culver’s, Keepers Quarters, Two Guys Pizza and Meo Myo Cafe.
In other good news, real estate taxes won’t increase, Carbondale firefighters saved $164 million of local property from immolation, and Carbondale provided a permanent space to the nonprofit Toys for Tots. The facility, on East College Street, will be used as a toy distribution hub for the next 10 years, according to a news release.
Carbondale police continue to deepen their relationship with the community, through forums, neighborhood-based policing that helps cops get to know the neighborhoods they work in, and increased foot patrols, Henry said.
In August of this year, the CPD’s K-9 Unit placed highly in the Vohne Liche Kennels 19th Annual K-9 Olympics, competing against teams from 40 states.
Representatives of the city, SIUC and SIH will soon travel to Washington, D.C., to ask the federal government to fund the Carbondale Station project, Henry said. The project would bring all of Carbondale’s public transportation into one place: from Amtrak, to Greyhound, to university shuttles, taxis, and county transit.
Carbondale Station would be located at the site of the city's existing Amtrak passenger station.
New members of the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce will be John Dozier, Carolin Harvey, John Rathjen, and Al Taylor, according to Jennifer Olson, the Chamber’s President and CEO. Christopher Swims is returning to the Chamber for another term.