(City of Elgin photo)

Driving the Movement for Elgin’s Self-Improvement

It could have been just another five-year plan, but instead the City’s new “Strategic Principles & Priorities” encapsulates a growing movement in this city – one that engages every corner of the community in a pathway to prosperity.

(City of Elgin photo)

There’s one thing you should know about the City of Elgin: The Elgin of yesteryear isn’t the Elgin of today.

In ways never seen before, leaders are joining together to address stubborn challenges through innovative solutions. No longer is it a matter of top-down directives. Instead, there’s a growing movement to engage all facets of this diverse community, reaching across ethnic, geographic and socioeconomic boundaries in pursuit of common goals.

Nowhere is this shared vision better encapsulated than in the City’s latest five-year strategic plan, which launched earlier this year.

The values and goals set out in this document aren’t so much a plan for the future as they are a summary of the values and vision driving a significant change in mindset.

It’s a reflection of the city’s growing optimism in a prosperous future, and it encapsulates a mindset that’s percolating deep into the community.

“They want to be part of the answer, and it was never like that in this city,” says Mayor David Kaptain.

The City’s new strategic plan, intended to run through 2022, sets out four core values: collaboration, diversity and inclusion, innovation, and stewardship. It also establishes three defined goals: A city of choice, a safe and healthy community, and a high-performing, financially stable government.

“Across the board, people are excited about what’s next in Elgin,” says Laura Valdez, assistant city manager and a chief architect of the plan. “It’s because you see people across the community rolling up their sleeves and working with us to get things done.”

Genesis of a Vision

To those who worked closely with Elgin’s prior strategic plan, there’s a lot of familiarity in this latest plan. That’s by design. In many ways, this new “Strategic Principles & Priorities” builds upon the accomplishments of its predecessor while pushing the city’s self-improvement to new levels.

The former plan, called a “Roadmap to the Future,” was a large, all-encompassing document that laid out specific objectives in eight core priorities: public safety, neighborhoods, financial stewardship, economic development, downtown, education, workforce development, diversity in the workforce, and image and engagement. By Valdez’s count, at least 1,000 separate initiatives arose from 2013 to 2017, while “Roadmap” was in effect.

While the city manager’s team coordinated special projects inside City Hall, a special Strategic Planning Advisory Commission (SPAC) provided additional input to city council. Its 12 members, hand-picked by Kaptain, brought a wealth of ideas from a diverse cross-section of the public.

But “Roadmap” had its weaknesses, too. At 32 pages, it was so in-depth and so detailed that it was hard to keep front-of-mind. Repeating the plan for another five years just didn’t seem sustainable.

“In a world of declining resources, particularly human resources, it was labor-intensive to be monitoring and developing documents that reported out and tied these back to each priority,” says SPAC chairman Bill Briska. “So, you needed a lot of support staff just to work your quarterly reports. It required a lot of monitoring and data digging.”

As 2017 came around, Valdez began boiling down the “Roadmap” into an easy-to-grasp vision – one that could guide not only city staff but leaders across Elgin. She researched with city staff, city council, SPAC and community leaders.

“Laura gets a huge amount of credit for realizing the state of things, going to department heads and gaining the wisdom to distill things down,” says Briska.

Adding to her research, Valdez gathered input from ordinary people, through a community survey and a series of listening sessions.

“We wanted to talk about their vision for the City of Elgin,” says Kaptain. “What kind of job are we doing? What are we doing well, and what are we not doing so well? How do we meet their needs? It was a big year for us, and I think it was a year that focused us into the future. We’re not just looking at what the mayor, the city council and city staff think the city should be, but what the citizens think, too.”

Collaboration Among Sectors

Nearly 2,500 people work at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin. That includes doctors and nurses, of course, but it also includes many behind-the-scenes workers in places like administration, food service, laundry, maintenance and transportation. Many positions are entry-level.

But for a long time, these sorts of career options have remained largely unknown to the community and graduates of the local U-46 school district, which incorporates schools in 11 communities, including Elgin.

“Many high school graduates and families within our community are not focused on going to college,” says Linda Deering Dean, hospital president. “So, if high schools are focused only on college preparedness, what are you going to do with the students who want a different track?”

As Elgin transforms from the inside out, there’s a growing recognition that diverse parties will have to work together to create innovative solutions that address a number of local challenges.

It was out of this mindset of collaboration that the nonprofit Alignment Collaborative for Education (ACE) formed in 2015 after an education summit led by Kaptain. Similar to initiatives in Nashville and Rockford, ACE works collaboratively with the U-46 school district to align community resources so that every student has a pathway to success. In many ways, the organization provides a critical interface between school curriculum, the local jobs market and local families.

One of ACE’s earliest initiatives with the school district was to develop a plan for career tracks that introduce youths to a wide range of career options. The idea is that students can explore numerous jobs before deciding upon a path in manufacturing, health care or college preparation, for example. The intention is that, wherever students land after graduation, they’re prepared accordingly.

“We need people to come back and be employed in the community,” says Kaptain. “That, I think, is one of the largest challenges we have, and an opportunity, too.”

“ACE is a long-term strategy, working alongside the school district, to make needed improvements which will take 5 to 10 years to fully accomplish,” says Deering Dean. ACE and U-46 are partnering with local agencies, employers, colleges and universities to lead improvements. Initial changes are already underway.

“We’ve held a couple of roundtables where manufacturers can show high school kids what they do,” Deering Dean says. “This September, we’re doing it with eighth-graders at the Sears Centre. Every eighth-grade class in U-46 will there for this.”

Preparing students for a meaningful career will involve more than school curriculum. Along with U-46, ACE is targeting key indicators of school success, including preschool readiness and grade-level reading.

“Preschool readiness doesn’t necessarily involve the school district,” she says. “So, we’re still asking how do we – and should we even – expand our reach into the preschool arena?”

Outside the schools, the Sherman team is finding other ways to connect with populations that aren’t well connected.

“We’ve started partnering with the YMCA, to make opportunities available for young adults,” Deering Dean says. “If you want to work in a hospital, we’ll train you. We’ll bring you here for eight weeks and give you different experiences. At the end of the experience, we offer jobs to those who did well. It’s been a win-win.

Diversity and Inclusion

A few years back, Kaptain was looking to engage with Elgin’s Spanish-speaking residents – a sizable portion of the city, given that 45 percent of residents are Hispanic.

Kaptain did the natural thing: he reserved space at City Hall, then put out some fliers. Maybe 10 people showed up. Then he visited the library.

“I see all of these people walking in and out, and they’re all Hispanic,” he says. “I said, ‘Let’s do one at the library. So we did, and it was standing room only. It was the same meeting, led by the same people, the same conversation, but these people were not comfortable coming to City Hall because of the culture they came from. They did not trust city government, but they trusted the library. That was a watershed moment for us.”

To focus on diversity and inclusion in this latest plan isn’t merely to “check a box,” or to be a perfect mirror of the community, area leaders say. It’s about ensuring that all of Elgin is engaged – whether that’s on the police force, within City Hall, or on commissions like SPAC. To make the city successful, it takes the input and buy-in of Elgin’s widely divergent segments.

Like Kaptain, Deering Dean has noticed it takes a different approach to reach certain communities. When Latinos, for example, were presenting with a higher incidence of diabetes, the team at Sherman began engaging differently with them.

“Even our marketing material needed to be revised to reach that population,” she says. “It’s not that they didn’t want health care; we just didn’t make it appealing to them. When we changed our message from ‘be the best you’ to ‘be healthy for your family,’ we had a better response. Isn’t that interesting? We have to do a better job reaching people where they’re at, because one size doesn’t fit all.”

Deering Dean has heard a similar story about the area’s sizeable Laotian immigrant population.

“Many persons in our Laotian community have not had health care available to them in the past,” Deering Dean says. “We have to help them know what’s available in a way that is meaningful and comfortable to them.”

Dennis Verges understands the cultural disconnect firsthand. The serial entrepreneur, strategic planning consultant, small-business financier and SPAC member is Hispanic, and he lives in a neighborhood that’s roughly 70 percent Hispanic/Latino.

“The only communication most of my neighbors have with their government at all is through the police department or fire service, and maybe some code enforcement,” he says.

And usually when they do have questions or need help, they turn to Verges first.

“To my neighbors, I am 311,” he says, referring to the city’s services hotline. “So, I try to help them see that City Hall is not a castle. It’s not some unreachable facet of the universe you shouldn’t have access to. It’s yours and mine as much as it’s Mayor Kaptain’s.”

Diversity and inclusion is about much more than cultural identity. Briska believes it’s also important to represent socioeconomic diversity, which can vary widely in Elgin.

“You’ve got to be thinking about people who have a hard time making ends meet, living paycheck to paycheck, as much as you’re thinking about the people who are well-off and live in big houses and want more services,” he says. “How do you balance that?”

At the same time, the city has a growing cadre of female leaders stepping into roles formerly dominated by men – roles on city council, on the police department, in business and within City Hall. Inclusion, then, is about representing all facets of the city, because success requires buy-in from all corners.

“When it comes to working for the City of Elgin, we want to make sure our environment here is truly inclusive, and people feel like they have a path forward in the organization,” says Valdez. “They feel their ideas are valued, and they feel like they’re contributors to every single thing they do.”

Innovative Thinking

It’s a term more commonly heard in business than in government, but innovation remains an important interest in City Hall. It’s through novel approaches that they’re tackling complex issues.

When it comes to filling management-level vacancies, Kaptain encourages promotion from within. He believes hiring from within can be more sustainable and inclusive.

“I believe in a farm system,” says Kaptain. “I believe the way to develop a diversified city is to bring in young people at 20 and 30 years old and have them commit to being part of our city.”

When the city’s public works director left last year, the spot was filled by two high-level insiders – Aaron Neal and Greg Hulke – who now serve as superintendents leading the department. The pair have worked in the department for more than a decade.

“We’ll let them grow into those positions,” says Kaptain. “I believe that’s the way to do it, and we’re going to hire more and more people to take inside jobs.”

At the same time, Valdez believes there’s promise for innovation through the city’s new 311 call center, which dispatches nonemergency phone calls for city services. Since it was formed in January 2014, the call center and a corresponding mobile phone app have become important funnels for residents needing non-emergency city services. They’ve also become easy tools for monitoring common issues.

Valdez envisions how 311 and the city services app will be streamlined in the near future: someone could pay a parking ticket, report potholes, register for permits and more – all in one place.

Of course, the city is no stranger to innovation. Its police department has long employed nontraditional tactics for reducing crime, and it’s now realizing true progress. The city’s overall crime rates are currently at 46-year lows.

Starting in the early ‘90s, the Resident Officer Program of Elgin placed up to nine officers in strategic sectors of the city where crime was especially high. Their task was to interact with residents and head off the sorts of situations that often resulted in costly, time-consuming responses from the police.

The police department now targets just four neighborhoods in Elgin, and the concept has been deployed in other communities, including Rockford, where former Elgin commander Dan O’Shea is police chief.

“Truly, we credit that community policing model with why we have such low crime here in Elgin, and why it’s such a safe community,” says Valdez. “This is not something you see in many communities, but our police department continues to lead the way in terms of community engagement.”

Providing Good Stewardship

Briska remains proud of and impressed with the city’s AAA bond rating, which it’s maintained through several decades of financial prudence. But looking toward the future, Briska believes the imperative for good management will only grow stronger.

“We haven’t raised taxes, but the amount is growing that we pay into pensions, health care costs, collective bargaining agreements, the inflationary cost of doing business, and very large infrastructure improvement needs,” he says. “Financial stewardship is important, which is why it’s in this strategic plan. The city’s done a good job staying on budget tasks, but it’s not going to be as easy going forward. They don’t have the luxury of disposable income at levels they had 10 or even 25 years ago.”

Financial prudence and good stewardship are why Kaptain says he doesn’t like to offer financial incentives for economic development. Instead, he’s prioritized a “fast tracking” system that speeds a development through municipal departments. Just as he tries to demonstrate stability and commitment in City Hall, he expects the same from local businesses.

“I want you to be here for 20 years or longer,” says Kaptain. “If you’re coming here and you’re only going to be here temporarily, then maybe another community would be better for you. If we’re going to commit to you, I want you to commit to the city of Elgin.”

Briska, too, believes smart economic development goes hand-in-hand with responsible government.

“You have to watch your revenue streams, and economic development factors,” he says. “You’ve got to bring in businesses that are going to generate revenue – not just sales tax but the jobs they offer that then trickle back into sales tax. And what kinds of jobs are these? How many people will you hire and what kinds of salaries do you offer?”

Moving the Needle

On all four counts – collaboration, diversity and inclusion, innovation and stewardship – city leaders see opportunities for improvement. But that’s the point of this strategic plan, they say. It’s meant to be used as an aspiration, a vision for the future.

“We want to make sure this is the lens we’re looking through, for all of the different decisions we’re making, the programs we’re creating, the communications we’re having, the policies we’re making and the money we’re spending,” says Valdez.

This is a short-term strategy with a long-term position, and it’s one that requires buy-in far beyond City Hall.

But getting there is a challenge. Funding, for one, is an ever-present obstacle. And reaching across diverse cultural groups is an ongoing concern. Verges, for one, believes it’s essential for ordinary citizens to know they, too, can and should take action to improve their community.

“Elgin is amazingly diverse,” Verges says. “We need to celebrate that more, and not only share that message but own it.”
Of course, you don’t climb a mountain in one leap. You do it by a thousand little steps, as ACE is proving.

“Before we take on another initiative, we have to make sure the one we’re already doing is going to be helping,” says Deering Dean. “You don’t want to do 10 scattered things and have 10 things each make a little difference. Let’s do one or two things that are going to make a big difference, and let’s see them through.”