NIU Center for Governmental Studies looks to the future after celebrating 50 years

NIU President Lisa Freeman presents opening remarks at the NIU Center for Governmental Studies 50th Anniversary Conference in November 2019.

To mark the end of its 50th anniversary year, the NIU Center for Governmental Studies (CGS) released three policy profiles that will help civic leaders better understand and shape the future of localities in Illinois. The three profiles address shifting demographics and conditions that are affecting Illinois towns and cities, and they provide guidance to help municipalities adapt and succeed in the face of these changes.

“The unique co-release of three policy profiles grew out of CGS’ 50th anniversary conference and represents our commitment to the future of local government in Illinois,” says Greg Kuhn, CGS Interim Director. “We were thrilled to welcome over 200 stakeholders, government leaders colleagues and public administrators to our 50th anniversary conference in November 2019.The conference was not just about highlighting our 50-year history, but also about looking to the future, with breakout sessions focused on strengthening local economies, environmental stewardship, fiscal sustainability, health challenges and the necessary resources to accomplish all that lay ahead. I encourage all to read these three policy profiles that were just published to gain insights and foster creative thinking during this time of fundamental challenges and change.”

The first policy profile, a case study of Dixon, Illinois, explores the major challenges facing rural communities in the 21st century, especially the loss of manufacturing jobs and the aging of the rural population. Dixon serves as a model for medium-sized rural communities because this active regional hub, home to about 15,000 residents, has employed a successful planning and development model focused on enhancing quality of life to retain and attract residents, especially young families and retirees.

According to the profile’s authors, Norman Walzer and Danny Langloss, the experience of Dixon “offers other rural Illinois communities both a reason to be positive about their future and useful insights into a process of change to make that future possible.” In particular, effective leadership, strategic public/private partnerships and community engagement have been central to Dixon’s ability to quickly shift its focus from job creation to quality-of-life enhancements, which are attractive to workers who are increasingly willing to work at home, telecommute or commute longer distances.

Greg Kuhn, interim director of the Center for Governmental Studies.

“Modern technology is changing the way people work and where they can live,” Walzer and Langloss write. “This, in turn, creates new pathways communities can use to sustain and grow their populations.” This is especially true for rural communities, “which often have a lower cost of living and pleasant quality of life with natural recreation areas.”

Through public/private partnerships, the profile notes, Dixon has created a vibrant arts and culture community, revitalized their historic downtown, developed their riverfront, expanded their industrial park and enhanced community events that attract more than 50,000 visitors annually.

The second policy profile focuses on helping local governments understand the aging of many residents and the growth in their senior populations. The profile’s authors, Norman Walzer, Mim Evans, and Andy Blanke write that, “By 2029, residents 65 years and older could represent 25% or more of the population in as many as 23 rural Illinois counties — a substantial increase from only five counties in 2019.”

While an aging population can cause concerns in terms of tax revenue and worker shortages, the profile’s authors nonetheless see potential for rural areas to benefit from “programs that accommodate growth in elderly populations and provide opportunities for them to help stimulate local economies.” Because baby boomers are relatively financially secure and will spend a significant number of years in retirement, attracting them can be beneficial for rural communities, the profile notes.

Another positive development is that the same elements that make a community most attractive to older residents are also appealing to all age groups. “Safe neighborhoods, walkable environments, access to recreation and entertainment, affordable housing and educational opportunities are desired by many residents, regardless of age,” the profile notes. “Since rural areas already have many of these traits, they can be potential attractions for residents aging in place as well as those seeking a place to retire or younger households seeking a place to raise a family.”

The third policy profile focuses on the changing fiscal landscape and how municipalities can consider strategies to effectively fund local services in the face of shifting demographics and thus a changing tax base. This profile addresses the same demographic reality that informed the other two: rural areas in Illinois are seeing a decline in the overall number of residents as well as a shift towards an older population.

By examining property tax structures in Illinois and other states, the profile’s authors, Walzer and Blanke, offer some creative approaches communities might use to fund local services while relieving pressure on local property taxes. These may include agency mergers or consolidations, innovating to implement efficiencies and best practices, or passing statewide legislation.

“Different conditions and governmental arrangements within Illinois make it difficult to impose an effective one-size-fits-all remedy, which further emphasizes the importance of local engagement,” the authors note.

Kuhn says that the NIU Center for Governmental Studies serves local governments in an advisory role and is available to help municipalities and counties cope and even prosper during challenging times.

“Our teams at CGS have been objective and knowledgeable partners with communities and state agencies across Illinois. We collaborate with them to analyze the past and present, and build on their strengths and capabilities to continue to serve us all,” he says. “CGS is also currently working with the town of Woodstock, Illinois, to help them develop an Age-Friendly Livable Community plan. We look forward to continuing our work with local governments and civic leaders throughout our region and our state to help them navigate the days, months and years ahead.”

All three policy profiles are available in full on the Center for Governmental Studies website. Learn more about CGS at cgs.niu.edu.

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