Downtown Decay: Springfield city center has lost residents, businesses, and tourists – and poor leadership is to blame
Looking for space to lease in Downtown Springfield?
Try the corner of E. Washington and S. Fifth across the street from the Old State Capitol. You can lease the entire Myers Building, 117,000 square feet of office space for $2.4 million. At that price, they might as well be giving it away.
Too expensive or too big? The Resource One Building around the corner has multiple offices available. Or the building at 217 E. Monroe Street? Or 500 W. Monroe Street? Both have plenty of space available at a discount price.
Perhaps you want an entire hotel? The owner of the Wyndham has been trying to sell the property for years, and he hasn’t been successful.
Maybe you want an entire vacant city block? The Y Block has made non-stop headlines for 8 years for all the proposed plans, potential grants, and development ideas that have gone nowhere. The city purchased the block without a plan, and now it’s just sitting there with no activity, absent a weekly free concert during the summer.
Every single block in Downtown Springfield has “Space Available” or “Vacancy” signs. That’s not an exaggeration.
And what has taken the place of all the businesses, restaurants, and apartments that have left?
An infamous “tent city” at the corner of 11th Street and Madison Street, in 2020 and 2021. As was widely reported, people from across the state were attracted to Springfield for all the wrong reasons. The tent city was the single biggest attraction of Downtown Springfield, until the city finally shut it down after a stabbing and other high-profile violence.
It’s not just the vacant buildings and tent city. Springfield’s city center has been in a downward spiral for years, and that’s plainly obvious to anyone willing to admit it.
One of the reasons? The city’s lack of vision and its near total reliance on the use of tax increment financing, a tool commonly called a “TIF” and used by municipalities to spur economic growth and generate additional tax revenue.
Other cities have used the tool to great effect. The idea is that local taxing authorities (cities, school districts, park districts, community colleges) give up tax revenue in the short term to pool their resources together and encourage additional private investment that will increase tax revenue for all the taxing authorities in the long term. It’s a great tool - if the TIF actually creates additional growth and tax revenue. If it doesn’t, that means there’s less money going to pay for schools, law enforcement, and other government programs with nothing to show for it.
The TIF concept is akin to the idea of a rising tide that lifts all boats. If the tide actually rises, all boats benefit. But if one boat is sinking because of a gaping hole in that boat, all the boats may run aground if the tide is lowering quickly enough.
Springfield’s Central Area (Downtown) TIF has had tremendous successes in the past, but the tide stopped rising years ago.
City leadership cites the Downtown TIF as the “most successful TIF in Springfield,” but according to publicly available statistics, the Downtown TIF has not been successful at all over the last 10 years.
Local taxing authorities have given up more than $100 million in taxes to fund TIF projects over the last 40 years, but the TIF has generated less than $20 million in incremental growth of the property in the target area, which is growth below the rate of inflation.
Prior to the Downtown TIF’s extension in 2016 under Mayor Langfelder, this TIF had seen seven straight years of negative growth in real dollars as determined by property values and tax records available from the Sangamon County Clerk’s Office. And since the TIF was extended in 2016, growth has declined in the downtown region by double digits.
The state’s bipartisan TIF Reform Task Force has warned that low or poor growth TIF projects like this are an “indirect tax rate increase.”
In the case of District 186, taxes have actually gone up, most recently in November 2018 to pay for school facility improvements. If the Downtown TIF did not exist, District 186 could have used that lost tax revenue to pay for those projects, rather than making taxpayers pay more.
But why then did the city push so hard for an extension of the Downtown TIF even after it stopped being effective?
Money and control.
The City of Springfield controls the decision-making of each TIF project, including the Downtown TIF, which means they control more money. The city has extra tax dollars given up by other taxing authorities (District 186, Springfield Park District, Sangamon County, Lincoln Land Community College) that it gets to spend with little to no oversight.
No wonder the City of Springfield spent TIF money to fund roof improvements at the Municipal Center Complex in 2017. The city later returned the money after public outrage, but this action shows city leadership’s willingness to use the TIF as its own slush fund to control at their whims.
Instead, the Downtown TIF should be a strategic development tool to spur new growth. It could be successful if used properly, and it was successful for the first 25-30 years of its existence.
How was it successful back then? What did the city do differently to spur growth and draw people downtown through projects like the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and County Market? Each of those projects was funded in part by the TIF, and they achieved the objective of helping raise the tide for all boats.
The city had a development strategy back then. A vision for the future. A plan to rejuvenate downtown. Leadership that could carry it out.
But that hasn’t existed for years. City leadership didn’t even see the need to fill a vacant position for director of planning and economic development for 18 months. Inaction at the worst possible time.
Unfortunately, until the city has an actual strategy and the leadership to execute it, Downtown Springfield will continue its downward spiral. If things don’t change, the biggest attraction may once again be a tent city, except they’ll probably just use one of the vacant buildings next time and no one will be downtown to notice.