A RacinePost reader sent in this email Monday:
There was a shooting on the 1100 block of Romayne Ave. on Sat. night @ about midnight. 7 shots fired from a small caliber handgun into the windshield of an SUV. The perpetrator got out of a car and walked into the front yard of 1102 Romayne and fired the shots. No one was hurt. This whole neighborhood north of Gould to 3 mile and between Douglas and Main is getting hit big time by more serious crime. Racine is going to lose a lot of taxpayers and see another neighborhood go down in 10 years or so if we don't do something NOW!This email sums up the difficulties facing the city. How does Racine remain a viable city over the next 10 or 20 years with people worried about the future of their neighborhoods?
I think we are moving, since this happened near us. You lose a family of 5 with 2 professionals and 3 kids in RUSD plus many others like us.
Problems will be exacerbated this fall when city officials consider the 2010 budget. State shared revenue is plummeting, local tax revenues are, at best, flat and likely down, and the need for police services, as well as job-training and social service programs, is on the rise. The city needs a game-changer.
By "game-changer" I mean something that radically alters direction. In a familiar sports context, it's like needing a yard for a first down and instead going for the 50-yard touchdown pass. Is there risk? Of course. But there are time when playing conservative doesn't work. You need a radical shift in thinking and action.
I can think of two game-changers that would have an immediate impact on Racine. Both are controversial, but could have real impact on the community.
The first is some sort of decriminalization of drugs. Arresting, jailing and prosecuting local residents for marijuana possession is expensive, time-consuming and ineffective. Does anyone doubt they could buy pot in Racine if they wanted to? Our police officers have better things to do (like preventing violent crime), and our taxpayers have better things to pay for, (like preventing violent crime) than busting people for small amounts of marijuana.
Setting that aside (for now), the second game-changer is the KRM commuter rail. I attended SEWRPC's listening session Monday night on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement on extending commuter rail from Kenosha to Milwaukee. It was a procedural step en route to applying for the federal money needed to make KRM a reality. No new information was presented; it was simply an opportunity for the public to submit comments on the train service.
But the hearing did provide perspective on why the train is being considered. Walking through a series of signs set up on easels through Gateway's hallways, one sign display jumped out. Here it is:
The two maps date back to 2006. They were created by a consultant and the future map is only a projection of what could happen if the station is built. But the transformation makes sense, particularly along the Root River.
The current use along the river is largely industrial and storage with a mix of single-family and multi-family homes in the surrounding neighborhood. The projected future use is open green space and residential, with some commerce mixed in, surrounded by single-family homes. No doubt it's a rosy future for an area know for high crime rates. But the KRM station has the potential to be a game-changer.
The city right now is competition with its neighboring communities (Mount Pleasant, Caledonia, Oak Creek, Franklin, Somers, Kenosha, etc.) for residents. In many ways, the city doesn't have a lot to offer. It's property tax rate is high, it's crime rate is above surrounding areas, there's not a lot of jobs, the schools aren't great, driving to the Interstate is a pain ... all the problems we all know are facing the community.
Years ago the state considered extending Highway 794 along the lakefront into Racine. At the time the community fought the idea because it would divide the city and significantly change the urban landscape. Unfortunately, we're paying for that decision now because of Racine's isolation from Milwaukee and Chicago. Kenosha is growing because of its ties to northern Illinois and cities like Oak Creek and Franklin are growing because of their connection to Milwaukee. Racine sits on an island in the middle.
KRM is the city's new opportunity to plug into the neighboring urban areas. The beauty of the project is the federal government would cover a big chunk of the start up cost - more than $100 million. That's a direct investment into Racine and southeastern Wisconsin's infrastructure, one the community would be foolish to pass up.
I understand the counter argument. The ridership numbers may be optimistic/unrealistic, a rental car tax seems like a questionable way to pay for the trains and more money will probably be needed to run the trains. Racine certainly doesn't need higher taxes, and it's bordering on absurd to ask Burlington and Waterford residents to pay for a train they'll never ride.
That all makes sense. But what's lost in the argument is the need for radical change. City and state officials need to do something for Racine, and they've needed to do it for a long time. The city suffers from chronic unemployment, poverty and the resulting violent crime, and has done so for decades. (Some say the crime rate is a matter of exaggerated perception - an argument I'm sympathetic to. But I'm also sympathetic to stories like the one above. If there was a violent shooting on our block, I'd move, too.)
People need reasons to move to Racine and reasons to stay in Racine. The lake, affordable homes and a nice Downtown are good examples. But they're not enough if people are unemployed or fearful for their family's lives.
The problems described in the opening email stem from the high-crime near the KRM station. The property values in the area are depressed, the home-ownership rates are low, there are few jobs and a limited number of viable commercial businesses. The area needs massive stimulus, and right now, the only one on the table is the new KRM station.
There's a good underlying question here as to whether the station will lead to new development and an invigorated neighborhood. It worked in Kenosha and, I'm told, Highland Park, Ill. But Racine would require a substantial transformation that's difficult to envision. Still, what's the worst that happens? The train service starts, no one rides it, expenses skyrocket and the RTA turns to Racine and other communities to pickup the tab. If it's outlandish, the city will say no. It's largely federal money - money collected from our taxes that will be spent elsewhere, if not here - and fees on rental cars that's at stake.
Here's the key: What's the best outcome for Racine? KRM is an opportunity for the city to acquire a massive investment in an ailing neighborhood in desperate need of change. The region would do well to support that investment as a way to invigorate eastern Racine County's economic center and bring a new resource to a community competing for jobs and people.
Of course, there's always the alternative of decriminalizing drugs and hoping that brings people to town. But when it comes to game-changers, KRM is the best option.