Universities conduct studies and urban planners attend seminars to determine what makes a city vibrant.
Vibrancy is hard to quantify and harder to define; you know it when you see it.
Vibrancy is an energy, a sense of purpose that pulsates through the community and, in many successful cities, through the central business district. Vibrancy is a quiet energy, a drive, a feeling of impending success. It is an expectation of excellence that one contributes to and benefits from.
The secret that all urban planners seek and for which consultants are paid millions is not a complex algorithms or delicate balance of socio-economic factors.
It is not more parking decks or condominiums. It is not pedestrian malls, covered malls, mini-malls, enclosed walkways, better lighting, dollar days, more fairs and festivals, brick paved crosswalks or tax incremental financing districts.
It is youth. Young people. People who have hope and expectations and embrace hard work and the rewards they believe should come with it. Young families, young college students, young businessmen.
Young people bring vibrancy.
I came to this simple but somewhat astounding conclusion as I sat in a coffee shop in Columbia, Mo., home of the University of Missouri, a city smaller than Elgin but much more alive.
It wasn't the university students that made that true. They are an endless supply of disposable income to fuel the local economy, particularly restaurants, bars and cheap clothing.
But 95 percent of them were gone when I visited this past weekend, graduated or back home in Indiana or wherever for the summer.
The energy of the town did not stop because they left. The streets were full of young couples pushing strollers, businessmen purposefully moving from appointment to appointment, bars, restaurants, pizza parlors, coffee shops all teeming with life and activity. Traffic moved well through coordinated traffic-controlled intersections. Streets were clean, building facades fresh, flowers and shrubs and trees lined the streets. People felt comfortable and at ease with each other. It took me awhile before I realized something else; most of them were actually smiling. They were happy where they were and where they lived. They had expectations of others that they themselves lived up to.
And they were all young.
We spend a lot of time trying to preserve our heritage and storied past in Elgin and there is nothing wrong with being proud of the community as it used to be. But that is the point; by celebrating what it used to be, we are conceding that there is little to celebrate today, that nothing at present matches the long ago glory of what Elgin once was.
That does not attract young people to be a part of a dynamic, growing community. It fixes us permanently in the past as a place whose best years have past. Young people are what make a community strong, energetic and progressive. They have little interest in living in a city whose clock stopped 50 years ago.
In a column several weeks ago, I said that before the next election, before we listen to the silly campaign speeches about lowering taxes and accusations of minor transgressions, we should all take a moment and decide what kind of community we want to live in. What is it that we expect from our city and ourselves? What do we deserve?
If we cannot get past the pettiness and instead listen for the enlightened, progressive, thinking candidates, we will remain mired in the past.
My vision of what I would want our community to become is not one in which candidates make promises to lower my taxes by cutting the very things that might make this community attractive to young people. I want more energy and life, not more programs for the senior center.
To get that, I want to hear from candidates who have a vision to leave behind the retro clothing and vintage jewelry shops, the antiques malls, cash for gold stores and dollar outlet shops and slowly make Elgin accommodating to retail, commercial and businesses that attract stable, happy, energetic people.
I don't think we're that far away. We have made significant progress in the downtown area with restaurants and specialty businesses that have a unique, kitschy feel.
Progressive, insightful and youth-oriented thinking must continue or Elgin may have the lowest tax rate among dying cities in America.