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The Big Story: How is Silvis growing while its Illinois counterparts are shrinking?

The Big Story: How is Silvis growing while its Illinois counterparts are shrinking?

From the Jim Meenan's most memorable stories in 2019 series
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SILVIS — It wasn’t all that long ago that Silvis was considered an afterthought by many Quad-Citians.

Silvis mayor Matt Carter remembers the time well.

“The outcasts off in the distance or the country folks,” Carter recalls people thinking of Silvis.

But over time, that image has changed. Silvis is now the fastest-growing Illinois city in the Quad-City region with an estimated 9% growth in the next two to three years.

Attracting businesses and having city leaders and residents on the same page have helped Silvis buck the trend of shrinkage seen in other Illinois Quad-Cities. 

At a time when most Illinois Quad-Cities are shrinking, Silvis is growing. It could soon reach 8,000 residents, and Carter predicts it may reach 10,000 in the next decade, or even sooner.

It was one of 233 communities in the state of Illinois to receive High Growth Cities funding between fiscal years 2014 and 2017 when the state dropped the program.

In the last census, Silvis had a population of 7,479. The official Silvis sign says 7,300.

“Our goal is to hit 8,000, which is pretty aggressive but fairly realistic based on our past trend and based on what’s happening in the next two years,” said City Administrator Jim Grafton. “It’s not really about growing our community to be bigger. I think that it’s a pretty simple formula that we have to be focused on making it a priority to make our community a place where people want to live.”

One-on-one attention

Silvis makes itself a place that's easy for people to do business, Carter said. 

That begins with the team at City Hall. But it also includes the red tape — or lack of it.

“Everybody is on the same page looking at the same horizon,” Carter said. “And that’s a big plus right off the bat. Secondly, we have two things that money can’t buy that has to be cultivated within the organization — stable government and ease of use.

“Any time a business wants to come into town, the last thing they want to do is (have it) be like pulling teeth to come into town. We try to be as accommodating and as complementary as possible,” Carter said. “It’s just simply living on that Golden Rule — treat others as you want to be treated.”

City Clerk Jim Nelson agrees Silvis has long practiced the Golden Rule.

And that doesn't just apply to businesses — it applies to residents too.

Nelson and Grafton say for residents, the welcoming begins when people come into City Hall to sign up for their water bill.

“They get introduced to our city,” Grafton said. “We get to know them. And when we change their water meter or explain how services are handled... I think that is a difference that folks don’t get in bigger communities. So we have more of the one-on-one attention.”

Ease of doing business

“When it comes to success, this is rooted back in the 1980s, and it has finally taken root over the last couple of years,” Carter said. “That is simply, starting with the TIFs (Tax Increment Financial districts), and I know a lot of folks are against the TIFs, but we have managed the TIFs well.

“Financially, internally when it comes to budgets, we always work with very conservative numbers so we don’t overextend ourselves.”

That conservative budgeting allows Silvis to position itself for more growth opportunities, Carter, now in his third year as mayor after 12 years as an alderman, said. “We live with real numbers, not hypothetical numbers. Just being realistic, because it’s easy to look at the pie in the sky and lose focus.”

Tax increment financing (TIF) is a public financing method that is used as a subsidy for redevelopment, infrastructure, and other community-improvement projects. Silvis has nine TIF districts, covering 43 percent of the city. 

The value of a TIF is the belief that the city banks on future taxes making up for a large tax subsidy to develop the property in the short term.

Silvis native and business developer Alex McGehee said those incentives have provided a major boost to the city.

“The city government has ... an appetite for growth, and they recognize if they take a pragmatic approach to incentives, that’s usually what’s needed in this economic environment,” McGehee said. "Silvis does a pretty nice job of recognizing the need — not only opportunity but the need for development. Because if we are not moving forward, you know what that means. Silvis has always been, in my lifetime, pro-growth, pro-development.”

Grafton knows there are critics. But he is quick to point out, as is Nelson, that the percentage of area in the city under TIFs has already gone down from 57 percent 10 years ago to 43 percent now.

“It’s a little distorted because we are a compact community,” Grafton said, noting that Silvis is just 1 mile wide by 3 miles long. “So 43 percent of the geography is within a TIF district, but two large TIF areas are going away in two years. That percentage is just going to go down.”

Plus, Silvis is continuing to build out within its borders.

“I guess our goal is just to not grow geographically but to grow within our city boundaries,” Grafton said. “Fill in the open areas with residential. That’s been our focus. By bringing in residential, we also bring in potential workers.”

And that is what most companies want, Grafton said.

But there are other benefits to the larger population as well.

“The main reason to grow is because this is a great community to raise a family,” he said. “And by adding to our population it gives us the funding mechanism to build new parks and make improvements to our community.”

Future growth

Carter believes the growth can continue in the years to come.

“Silvis is just a quiet community that keeps chugging along,” he said. Everyone is working for the same goal of “bettering Silvis and to better the lives of the citizens in Silvis.”

It can come from simple deeds of the people at City Hall, Grafton said.

“We try to be a city of compassion,” he said. “We will go the extra mile for the residents.

“I might get criticized for picking up trash in somebody’s yard, or for doing a little bit extra that really would not fall within our job description,” Grafton explained. “That goes for every employee in our city. And I think that difference is part of the pride that everybody exhibits, but it makes a difference in a community.”

Common sense, started long ago politically by mayor Tom Conrad, helps too.

“Conrad made the statement that we are not going to raise anybody’s taxes, we are not going to lay anybody off, and we are not going to borrow any money,’” Nelson said.

“So far, we have been able to do it. It’s a great mantra to live by. … I don't want to go over my budget because if we do, that means we are going to have to raise our taxes."

Future growth, Carter said, must lift all Silvis residents. 

“We’ve got to make sure we don’t forget anybody as we grow, too,” he said.

And with a new hotel and housing developments across the city, Carter, Grafton and McGehee all growth can continue in the next few years. 

“Within the city of Silvis, I still see growth potential,” McGehee said. “We still have properties throughout the city that are still ready to develop.”

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