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Forgotten Illinois Decatur: The Soy City’s search for its comeback
Central Illinois, historically, has been known for its strong agricultural ... A former place for opportunity Zane Peterson, a Decatur-based real estate agent, doesn’t have a common Decatur story, by his own admission. Peterson grew up in the Chicago ...
“I think there is quite a bit of opportunity still in downstate Illinois.”
Once upon a time, Peterson’s story and attitude would not have been so rare.
By 1966, Decatur had become the fourth largest city in the state, behind only Chicago, Rockford and PeoriaThe city was up nearly 9,000 residents from the 1960 censusThe boom that was felt decades prior hadn’t slowed down.
Corey Walker’s grandfather took advantage of the city’s growth, having moved to the thriving Decatur from Bronzeville, Tennessee, to start a new life and raise his family.
“My grandfather moved up here for employment,” Walker, a lifelong Decatur resident, said“Wagner Castings back in the ‘60s was hiring African Americans in record numbers.”
Wagner Castings, a manufacturer that produced ductile-iron cast components for automakers and suppliers, opened in 1917 and was a major employer in Decatur for the next seven decadesWagner Castings operated a 34-acre site and had as many as 1,000 employees in the city by 1990.
The Walker family planted roots in Decatur, and over the decades watched the town rise and fallWalker’s father started his own business in 1981, at which Walker worked as a teenager, and took over 18 years ago.
“My dad was a very successful African-American business owner, all my life,” Walker said“Back then in business in the ‘80s if you were in business you were successful, that’s what it equated to.”
“That was a time when money was plentifulEverybody was workingCrime was downYou had factories … dad was workingMom was workingDad’s in the factoryMom’s in the factoryThey had checks coming from everywhere.”
By 2005, the former Wagner Castings site had closed its doorsThe 34 acres once responsible for creating machinery, and wealth, was demolished and is now an Environmental Protection Agency cleanup site.
Other employers in Decatur have had similar storiesIn 2001, after 38 years in the city, tire producer Firestone closed its doorsLarge employers such as Tate & Lyle and ADM still maintain a huge presence, but even ADM made the decision to move its corporate headquarters to Chicago in 2013More recently, Meda Pharmaceuticals announced plans to shutter its plant in 2018Overall, the city has been experiencing a rough jobs climate: From December 2016 to December 2017, Decatur lost 700 jobs – a 1.4 percent decline – the second worst loss in the state, only behind Danville.
But even in a turbulent jobs climate, Walker – who owns a chauffeur business in Decatur – keeps perspective he’s developed from his family’s history and his personal experience in the communityMore than two decades ago, Walker was arrested on drug charges and served four months in prisonBut he rebounded, changed the trajectory of his life and has been a successful business owner, husband and father of four.
He credits his family, whose Decatur roots now extend over generations, with the support needed to get his life back on track to be productive for the community.
“I’m very thankfulI just come from great history, great roots,” Walker said“My grandfather worked everyday for 39 years at Wagner CastingsWagner Castings gave him an opportunity to take care of his familyThe things that my grandfather was able to instill in my father … we have a strong work ethic.”
“I just want to be able to leave Decatur better than my grandfather left it for my father, and my father left it for meAnd just Decatur being a better Decatur for my four boys.”
Dove, Gregory’s organization, is also focused on helping ex-offenders re-enter society and be productiveA hurdle in that effort, she says, is the natural struggle to forgive.
“We have a forgiveness problem … I think it’s hard for us as human beings to forgive,” Gregory said“I think it’s hard for us to let the past goAnd so you have to really work at itYou have to look at every single person as ‘they’re amazing, they have the potential to be amazingAnd so what if they weren’t amazing yesterday, they can be amazing tomorrow.’”
Viewing an entire city through that lens – that it can be amazing tomorrow, even if it wasn’t amazing yesterday – might be just as difficult of a mentality, but it’s no less critical.
“People are definitely aware of [the population decline] and it’s been felt,” Peterson said“Our retail market’s changed because of it and those jobs have been goneAt least two people that I know of [listed] their houses after the New Year and they’re looking at other states just to save themselves from [Illinois’] tax burden long term.”
In hindsight, the trend Peterson describes has been a long time coming.
But in advance of the 1990 Census, the population decline wasn’t seen in the same lightWhile that year marked Decatur’s first population dip after nearly a century of growth, the Soy City still held a degree of confidence.
Then-Mayor Gary KAnderson said at the time that “the assumption should not be drawn that the loss is entirely tied to economic conditions.” He also said he expected the population to climb again between 1990-2000It did notDecatur’s population peaked in the 1980s, at just under 100,000 peopleToday, it is under 75,000 people.
From January 1990 to January 2017, also, Decatur lost 2,000 jobs on netThe people still in Decatur are well aware of all of thisAnd while the state of Illinois continues on a downward path and city officials continue to squeeze every last dollar they can out of city taxpayers, residents are left thinking about what can be different.
“People are stuck in a rut,” Phillips said“People who have been here a long time, they think about ‘hey we remember when Staley was here and big’ or [they talk about] ADM or CaterpillarCaterpillar has grown and shrunk and grown and shrunkFirestone’s gone completelyWe need to start thinking outside the box to attract different kinds of businesses.”
Decatur has a rich history, tied in large part to the industrial strength of the region from the 20th centuryBut just like forgiving and providing second chances to individuals, being a place of opportunity again might mean adopting new mentalities – whether that’s for the state of Illinois, city officials, employers or job seekersAs Gregory said, she likes to think anyone can be “amazing tomorrow.”
“It’s all about saying ‘you know what, whatever happened in the past happened in the past and we need to move forward as a community,’” Gregory said“We need to have hopeAnd we need to just be positive about what we can be, because we can be so much if we work at it.”
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