BELLEVILLE — Residents who attended a West End Neighborhood Watch meeting Thursday night got updates from the mayor on a wide range of city issues.
For more than an hour, guest speaker Mayor Mark Eckert spoke and answered questions from a group of about 40 residents, city staff and aldermen.
Eckert said the city fared well in this economy, with sales tax revenue up for 26 of the past 30 months. The city has started an initiative with the Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce to communicate with Belleville businesses and came up with the simple, but successful plan to "Buy Belleville First."
Looking ahead, Eckert said he will do whatever he can to keep a relationship with Memorial Hospital and keep St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Belleville.
Here's a sampling of questions from residents:
* What has the city done to revitalize west Belleville beyond 45th Street?
Eckert said he's proud of the improvements made to downtown but also knows there's work to be done to fill vacancies in other parts of the city. Eckert said he's appreciative of the business owners who continue to reinvest in the city, but there are also property owners that are difficult to work with.
Eckert cited the owners who rented to former $20 Shoe Outlet as an example. He said city staff have met with many potential buyers for the site but the "property owners won't budge one inch."
"I can't force them to sell," Eckert said. "They have been hell to deal with."
Eckert said it was a good move to buy property on 74th Street between Foley Drive and the St. Clair Country Club Golf Course -- and recently the Loflin Furniture store at 10610 West Main St. -- to turn into green space.
Eckert said west end projects this year include fixing trip-and-fall issues on Juanita Place, building the retaining wall at Bellevue Park and connecting the city's bike trails.
And, continued growth of Lindenwood University and Southwestern Illinois College poises the city to be a college town.
All in all, the city has fared well in the bad economy, Eckert said.
"We know we have some problems but there's also bright spots," Eckert said.
* What about crime-free housing, Section 8 and drug houses?
Eckert said residents who come across criminal issues with their neighbors should report the incidents to the police and their aldermen. The city is currently working on a crime-free housing ordinance that should help with issues involving problem landlords and rental properties.
Eckert also pointed out that there's a lot less Section 8 housing in the city than residents think. City staff doesn't fear having Section 8 residents because they belong to a government program that holds the residents accountable, unlike other nuisance properties.
"There's someone we can go to if there are issues," Eckert said.
* Should the Police Department staff the substation in the west end?
Eckert said current and former city police chiefs have said the city is better served by having police officers patrol the city rather than being stationed in the building.
Former Police Chief Terry Delaney, who attended Thursday's meeting, said he conducted a survey during his term that showed that residents mostly stopped at the west end station to ask for directions. On-duty officers patrolling the district could return to the substation in minutes if needed. During the week, the Metro-East Auto Theft Task Force operates from the facility and provides a police presence.
* What is the progress on the Illinois State Police Metro-East Forensic Science Laboratory construction project next to Lindenwood University?
Eckert said the project was ahead of schedule for the first six months but slowed because of a dispute over design flaws in the structural steel fasteners. There's currently a lawsuit between the general contractor and the steel fabricating firm.
* What is the plan for the old YMCA?
Eckert said he does not support Rev. Larry Rice's idea to turn the old YMCA into a homeless shelter.
"I'm not saying the city doesn't need another homeless shelter, but not downtown," Eckert said.
Eckert said it's not enough to provide space for the homeless to live. He would rather have a more comprehensive program that helps homeless people with more, such as job training skills.
Eckert also said Belleville alone can't solve the homeless issue that exists in St. Clair County. He wants to work together with leaders from other cities.
The west end's Ward 4 Aldermen Dean Hardt and Tim Carpenter and Ward 8 Alderman James Musgrove attended the meeting.
Ward 8 Alderman Joe Orlet was absent; his wife, Joan, died Jan. 2.
Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.