Decatur's biggest economic development opportunity is reversing its population decline
Our biggest economic development opportunity is to reverse Decatur’s significant population decline. Population decline leads to reduced economic growth, labor shortages, increased debt, and decreased revenue to provide public services. To reverse population decline and create a livable, vibrant, and healthy city it will take: high-paying jobs, a skilled labor force, and housing. City government can play a substantial role in housing and neighborhood revitalization to stabilize and increase Decatur’s population. Since its launch, the city’s neighborhood revitalization efforts have been underwhelming relative to the magnitude of the challenge ahead of us, and as a member of the city council, neighborhood revitalization is a top priority.
In Fall 2018, the City of Decatur had over 120 houses on the demolition list, over 300 houses that were unfit for human habitation, 1,600 cases of property-related code violations, and the number of vacant housing units was nearly 4,500. In 2018, the Decatur metropolitan area was named the most affordable housing market in the United States with a median home price of $73,000. One year earlier, the same source reported the median home price in Decatur was $100,000. Our property values have fallen as some neighborhoods decline and houses fall into disrepair.
Decatur has achieved several significant accomplishments in recent years. The city has transformed its downtown, Lake Decatur amenities have improved, and we will spend over $130 million to dredge Lake Decatur. Yet, our population has declined 5% since 2010, and there are more people who work in Decatur and live elsewhere than people who live in Decatur and work outside the city. Furthermore, the city’s infrastructure is built for 100,000 citizens and we have a population of 72,000, creating a significant cost premium on infrastructure projects.
The City of Decatur already possesses significant assets that will make it attractive, particularly to older demographics. We have a low cost of living, excellent health care systems, our city is easy to navigate, numerous volunteer opportunities, a wonderful park system, and an outstanding arts program.
One way to fund neighborhood revitalization efforts is through revenue from video gambling. These establishments negatively impact the livability of our city and cause challenges for our citizens. I am opposed to video gambling, but if we are going to have it in Decatur, city funds gained from gambling should be used to improve our neighborhoods.
Neighborhoods are the foundation of its people, and it is time to make where we live a top priority. The days of seeing boarded up houses along our main thoroughfares and side streets must come to an end, as few people are likely to move to neighborhoods with dilapidated houses. Their removal and/or rehabilitation, as well as repurposing of vacant lots to greenspaces such as community gardens, creates jobs, opportunities for our youth and a greater sense of place. Working together, a city filled with more vibrant neighborhoods is in Decatur’s future, a future that means a halt to our population decline.