A look into the future: Where will Belleville be in 20 years?

News-DemocratAugust 21, 2013 

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert in a 2013 file photo.

ZIA NIZAMI — znizami@bnd.com

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— City leaders on Wednesday voiced improvements, big and small, they would like to see in Belleville in the next 20 years as part of the latest comprehensive plan.

City Council and Planning Commission members at the joint meeting reflected on what the city has accomplished in the past 15 years.

They also shared ideas on what might come, from the city offering more recreational activities -- such as the indoor trampoline park in Chesterfield, Mo. -- and establishing a new tax increment financing district to fix streets and curbs in Ward 4.

The public workshop Wednesday night was among the first in a series that consultants will hold with city leaders and residents to identify expectations and goals before crafting a road map for the city's growth.

Ward 1 Alderman Mike Heisler and Ward 5 Alderman Phil Silsby were absent.

The council approved $193,542 in June to hire Kendig Keast Collaborative, of Sugarland, Texas, to form the 20-year "Envision Belleville 2035" plan by next June.

Gary Mitchell, vice president of Kendig Keast, and Liz Probst, associate planner at the agency, first asked attendees what they view as recent accomplishments in the city?

The new Belleville West High School, and continued expansion of Lindenwood University and Southwestern Illinois College, were some examples.

City leaders were also proud of revitalizing downtown, redefining the city's entrances, expanding subdivisions and opening Belleville Crossing and the new 17th Street.

Mayor Mark Eckert said it is imperative the city continues to nurture its relationship with Scott Air Force Base, "the economic engine in the region."

Many of these projects were outlined as goals in the city's existing comprehensive plan, for the time period about 1999 to 2020.

Mitchell told city leaders that aside from issues related to public transportation, many cities nationwide would love to have an asset like the MetroLink connecting Belleville, and its college campus, to a big city like St. Louis.

Mitchell also pointed out that the city continues to expand and upgrades such infrastructure -- public transportation, bike trails and road and sewer work -- and the work is necessary.

"It may not be visible and it may not be sexy, but it's getting done," Mitchell said.

Ward 3 Alderman Kent Randle said he would like to see Illinois 15 extended west to the bridge. Mayor Mark Eckert agreed and said he has discussed such an endeavor with St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern.

"It has to be a link to Missouri," Eckert said.

Attendees also focused their discussion on what will attract new businesses and residents to Belleville, and what will keep them here?

Ward 4 Alderman Jim Davidson said it makes sense that Missouri residents will look to Belleville's housing options and good schools.

"We're not going to draw people from Freeburg, Smithton," Davidson said of the bedroom communities.

In that sense, Davidson and the other alderman of Ward 4, Johnnie Anthony, made a case for improving the aesthetics of their ward and the city's west entrances: Illinois 15 and Illinois 161.

"You can see the deterioration and absence of care all along 161," Davidson said.

Anthony said the ward's infrastructure and businesses suffer because the area does not exist in a TIF district, and there is not enough money in the general budget to pay for such work. He asked council members to consider establishing a district, if only for 10 years.

Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden said crime must be addressed. The city also should build "the best waterpark" in the metro-east and a hotel to attract visitors.

The group seemed to agree that securing a hotel would in turn attract new businesses. Eckert said two have expressed interest but are waiting on lending possibilities.

In discussing future growth, Eckert said the city is becoming increasingly attractive to areas west and east of Belleville previously opposed to annexation because of the city's emergency services and narrowing tax rates.

"We're going to close some of those donut holes," he said.

Jim Kurtz, chairman of the Planning Commission, said he also thinks it is important to enforce city zoning requirements so new developments look appealing and draw shoppers.

The concept falls along the lines of fixing city streets, which in turn will encourage homeowners to invest in maintaining their own properties.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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