On the occasion of the 175th Anniversary of Alton, Illinois
As delivered by: Patrick S. McGinnis, Senior Advisor, Great Lakes and Mississippi River Systems
September 12, 2012
Thank you COL Hall for the invitation to join you and your Alton Guests aboard this always impressive vessel today.
I worked for the Corps for 32 years and retired 3 years ago. Since then I have been working with clients of a Washington, DC-based consulting firm, The Horinko Group, and serve on the board of the Meeting of the Rivers Foundation.
In this capacity, I am involved in an ongoing conversation with a variety of private and public institutions on how to reposition themselves strategically by embracing principles of sustainability to improve market performance.
I have a few remarks that I think are timely to the occasion and reflective of the long-standing collaborative spirit that exists between the Corps of Engineers and the City of Alton.
I’d like to begin with an interesting historical note…in 1837, the same year Alton was founded, Congress authorized the Corps to develop a plan for improving navigation on the Upper Mississippi River. This study was led by Robert E. Lee. Lt. Lee was an officer in the Corps and was stationed in St. Louis from 1837-1840. Some folks credit Lee with being at least symbolically the Corps’ first St. Louis District Engineer.
However, as a matter of record, The Corps’ St. Louis District Office wasn’t officially established until 1873, six years prior to establishment of the Mississippi River Commission. St. Louis’ first District Commander was I believe either COL William Reynolds who was in St. Louis from 1870-1873 or his successor COL James Simpson. In any event, the late 1830’s marked the beginning of an active Corps presence at St. Louis and the beginnings of a longstanding relationship with the newly founded City of Alton.
Now, lets fast-forward into the twentieth century. Many of us now associate the physical presence of the locks and dams on the upper river as the beginning of the Corps’ permanent presence in the upper river valley. I know I do, growing up in Pike County between the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, and I know for my parents growing up through the Great Depression, the Corps was those locks and dams, and the Sny Levee District, and the CCC projects.
My parents would tell you the Corps put people back to work.
The 29-lock system that supports the Nine Foot Navigation Project stretches over 600 miles and was practically completed in one decade between 1930-1940. Old Lock and Dam 26, here in Alton, was completed in 1938 and named for IL Congressman Henry T. Rainey
In that first year of operation, Old 26 locked thru 1.4 Million Tons of commodities. In 1975, less than 40 years later, tonnage locked through Old 26 exceeded 55 million tons. That figure grew to exceed 75 Million tons at one point, an amount valued at $23 billion. About 60% of grain exported from the U.S. actually locks through here and Locks 27.
And, something else happened with the completion of the 29 locks…a system of slack water pools or lakes was created that became regionally crucial for recreational development and remain so today. Nature-based tourism on the upper river has become very big business and Alton is emerging as a gateway to millions of foreign and domestic leisure travelers wishing to experience and explore the Mississippi River first hand.
The navigation project drove the acquisition of thousands of acres of open space, which became immediately available for public use and enjoyment. Much of these lands are now included in the National Fish and Wildlife Refuge System. It is very likely that these lands would not have been acquired back in the thirties had it not been for the desire to open up the upper valley to shipping.
Lets fast-forward again to the 1980’s…the lock system has been in place 50 years and increased traffic and wear and tear are making the aging locks a bottleneck to efficiency and safety. Alton is now going to get a new locks and dam. At the time, it becomes the largest public works project in the U.S. and puts local contractors and the trades to work for over a decade.
In 1986, the Federal Water Resources Development Act also declares the Mississippi River a National Natural Treasure and a nationally important transportation corridor. The ’86 act also authorizes the funding of the auxiliary lock here at Mel Price, as well as the Upper Mississippi River System-Environmental Management Program, which over the next twenty-five years would improve the water management capacity and habitat value of thousands of acres of riparian public lands along the river.
In 1990, we witness a new wave of activity and interest happening along the river in this region, as communities like Alton begin to make efforts to reconnect with the river spruce up their waterfronts. Construction of the new locks and dam was well underway and would become operational in 1990.
The Corps would establish a new office here in 1989, which I was charged with developing. We named it the Riverlands Area Office. Within 12 months, we reclaimed 3,700 acres to a bottomland permanent prairie complex and completed the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary just across the river.
The magnificent new Clark Bridge here at Alton was also under construction. Alton’s waterfront gets a new floating gaming casino, the Argosy. The 1993 flood came and went. The Corps was in negotiations with Alton on the Riverfront Park redevelopment, which would include a state-of-the-art Marina concession operation based on the three party public-private partnership. The Vadalabene Bike Trail would be completed connecting St. Louis to Pere Marquette Park running right through the City of Alton. The Corps completes the new regional Visitor Center at Mel Price called the National Great Rivers Museum, using an innovative public-private partnership to push it through. Many Alton residents and business owners served on the Museum Citizens Advisory Committee.
The Lewis and Clark Historic site would get a new state of the art interpretive center just downstream at Hartford. Just upstream of Alton Raging Rivers Water Park opened. Later, we would land the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center and again community leaders stepped up to make this happen. The Meeting of the Rivers National Scenic Byway would be officially dedicated.
The Berm Highway portion of Route 143 in front of Mel Price Locks and Dam would get a new name, The River Heritage Parkway. The National Audubon Society would commence local programming at the recently completed Audubon Center at Riverlands, just across the river from Alton. Audubon’s Brand would instantly boost visitation to the site.
The Corps’ Museum at Mel Price and the Sanctuary across the river are now seeing 300,000 visitors each year. Tri-City Port would get a new name, America’s Central Port. The Corps would complete the Mississippi River Water Trail, which was recently recognized as only the 2nd National Water Trail by Interior Secretary Salazar. This trail supports the fastest growing outdoor sport, kayaking.
A focused effort to market the region for nature-based tourism and as a tourism destination is led by the Alton Convention and Visitors Bureau. These efforts begin building Alton’s and the Riverbend’s brand as a destination and Gateway to the Mississippi River.
There have been major highway and intermodal improvements along the way and more to come with high-speed rail and Alton’s proposed Intermodal Station. There is a major effort underway to address and update flood protection over the entire metro east region.
Many, many change drivers have brought us to where we stand here today. And where are we?
We are hopefully coming out of a prolonged and deep recession, we have a huge deficit and unemployment is high. All this creates a great deal of uncertainty for everyone.
Agencies in the federal government are going through major transformations to address the likelihood of no more earmarks. The Corps is trying to transform itself to better address the challenges of a modern society and how it can best serve in an era where federal resources will likely be heavily leveraged with private capital.
Regionalism is driving regional planning and an interest in identifying regional strengths referred to as clusters and regional centers of excellence. The need for resource leveraging and cooperation is driving regionalism and regional planning, but it is also driving what folks are calling P3s, public-private partnerships, to encourage private investment on many fronts that traditionally have been publicly funded.
All of this is driving a new era where top-down command and control models of governance are giving way to bottom-up grassroots approaches driven by greater transparency, broader civic engagement, and community-based problem solving.
In the midst of this uncertainty, I would argue that there is also opportunity for agencies like the Corps, for the State of Illinois, for Madison County, and for the City of Alton. And, while others may be resisting change and confounded by this rapid change, I believe those that think and act boldly may be able to seize the moment.
Alton and the Corps are in a very interesting place. More and more Americans are seeing issues involving water as matters of national security. This is also the case around the world and it will influence manufacturing, agricultural irrigation, ethanol production, hydropower, household uses of water, and a trend toward low impact development in places like Alton.
In October, representatives of our local National Great Rivers Research and Education Center will join members of the Corps and the State Department to travel to Southeast Asia to advise and cooperate with people of the Mekong River Valley and the Mekong River Commission on issues confronting them as they seek to sustain their Mekong River and the quality of life of millions of southeast Asians that depend on the Mekong.
More and more domestic and leisure travelers are seeking out water-based opportunities for recreation at what are being branded as nautical or maritime destinations. You may not have known this, but the Corps is the number one federal provider of water-based recreational experiences among all federal land managing agencies.
Panama Canal expansion has many looking at inland port expansion and improved intermodal logistics.
We now have a National Maritime Highway which Transportation Secretary LaHood is spearheading, and we are sitting on what is called the M-55 Segment of that system.
At the same time, this Administration is attempting to reconnect Americans to their Great Outdoors. Access to rivers and celebrating the heritage of our great rivers is a big part of that effort, as we sit here at the confluence of three of our nation’s most iconic rivers. It is for this reason, that President Obama sent his Assistant Secretary of Civil Works, Jo Ellen Darcy and Secretary of Interior Salazar to Alton this time two years ago to listen to community leaders about what could be done to better reconnect Americans to rivers like the Mississippi.
Locally, we have over 20,000 acres of public open space along the river, on Pool 26 alone. Every acre of it is within 45 minutes of downtown St. Louis.
In addition to the Corps land holdings, Fish & Wildlife Service has two major national refuges; the State of Illinois has one of its flagship parks at Pere Marquette. We now also have a Metro East Regional Park District.
EPA and USDA have launched a Healthy Watershed Initiative focused on the water quality of the Mississippi River to help ensure our common water future.
Many communities are struggling to overcome stormwater management challenges and combined sewer overflows.
Farmers are more actively managing nutrient loss from their fields that together with municipal waste is threatening the health of the Gulf. This drought has actually shrunk the dead zone in the gulf significantly due to reduced run-off and incidence of combined overflows.
HUD, DOT, and EPA have launched a regional sustainable community planning effort to build more livable communities. In fact, the St. Louis region just received a $4.7 M planning grant, which includes Alton and other Madison County communities.
Many NGOs are placing greater focus on the Mississippi. The National Audubon Society is attempting to call greater attention to the importance of the river for birds, people, and commerce, as is the Nature Conservancy and others. These groups understand the river possesses a wealth of natural capital. It is this natural capital that will grow tourism and help sustain riverside communities like Alton.
A group called the Northeast-Midwest Institute, in cooperation with the Walton Family Foundation, has launched what they are calling the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative. In just a few months, 35 mayors of Riverfront communities have joined this effort including Mayor Slay of St. Louis and Alton’s Mayor Hoetsch. The Executive Committee for this group consists of one mayor leading each of the ten state delegations. Mayor Hoetsch is leading the Illinois group and was actively recruited to accept a seat on the Committee. This group will conduct its first planning meeting in St. Louis in a few weeks (September 12-14).
Another group will also convene in St. Louis in September. This initiative is referred to as America’s Great Watershed Initiative, and it involves an effort to call greater attention to the economic and environmental health and future of the Mississippi River Watershed and its people and communities.
There is a new emphasis and spotlight being placed on our nation’s water resources and the Mississippi River and its iconic stature is not lost on others.
For several years when asked what’s the next “big idea,” I have said repeatedly said, and several in the room today can attest to this, “it’s the water, it connects everything.”
But, it’s really the nexus of water, energy, and food security. These systems have to remain resilient. And, most urgently, how we approach all this must be about putting people to work in well paying jobs.
In May 2013, River Network will bring its national membership to St. Louis for the first time for its annual national River Rally to lend its voice to promoting the vitality of the Mississippi River. This rally will likely draw over 700 participants and they will be here for almost a week.
So, where does all this activity leave us?
How do we connect all these dots strategically and reposition ourselves boldly to take advantage of this opportunity to possibly rebrand our communities, and the Corps, at a time when many others are hunkered down trying to just weather the storm?
How do we muster a convergence of effort across organizations?
Can we? Can we take advantage of our unique connection to water?
At a time of great uncertainty, how can we use this opportunity to create some predictability about where we are going so that investors know this region is unique and open for business?
This is a time for great vision!
As we celebrate these last 175 years of progress and the cooperation between the Corps and the City of Alton and honor Alton on its 175th anniversary…
And, as we look ahead, one question looms…
How do we pull all this energy and good intention about water, rivers, commerce, livable communities and rural landscapes into some common strategic direction and shared goals to carve out Alton’s place for the future?
The Corps has a motto “essayons” which means, “let us try.” But here, at this time, in this place, rather than trying, perhaps our motto should become, “let us begin.”
Let’s come together and work with our Mayors and Councils, community leaders, our County Chairmen, our business community, our state and federal legislators, and our District Commanders, and let’s seize this moment.
Perhaps, in all this uncertainty, we can forge some certainty about who we are, reaffirm our sense of place, and reveal to others where we are headed.
That type of certainty is good for business.