Housing conference takeaway: What could make Beloit the place newcomers want to live?
IT'S NOT A MYSTERY. Most people instinctively understand what makes individuals and families want to live any particular place.
We applaud Beloit City Hall officials and their community partners for convening the housing conference held earlier this week. It's about time.
People can't buy what isn't for sale. For too long Beloit has lagged behind neighbors to the north and south in developing a good range of housing options, which is one critical factor in the city's pattern of sluggish population growth.
It is encouraging to see the community coming together to address opportunities.
LIKE OTHER ISSUES, though, the housing situation cannot be looked at in isolation. It is inextricably linked to other factors, such as:
• Quality of life. The splendid City Center improvements of the past quarter century have moved this from a negative to a positive for Beloit, through not only bricks-and-mortar projects like the Ironworks complex or downtown commercial options but also with social initiatives like the Beloit International Film Festival, Fridays in the Park, Music at Harry's and much more. The overall impression is a vibrant, upscale sense that can attract people to give the community a closer look.
• But in choosing a residence there are other, very obvious factors that need work. Housing options rank high. When new jobs are created or people look for a place to live for some other reason, the market needs to balance with demand - a range of affordable housing, rental alternatives, condominiums, single-family homes from moderate to upscale. As demand has risen Beloit has been hard pressed to meet it. At the housing conference it was reported just 73 properties are on the market, and of that less than 25 are valued at or above $100,000. In practice, that's the next thing to an invitation to look elsewhere for people desiring a modern median-priced home or above.
WHEN PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY those who may be new to an area, look for a place to live three things can be non-negotiable.
• First, public safety. That doesn't mean crime-free. It does mean whether, on first impression, the community writ large conveys a general feeling of safety. Beloit is not as bad as some people - often, longtime residents - make it out to be. Census statistics show Beloit is not particularly out of line with - and lower than many - other urban areas for serious, violent crime. For example, a person is three times more likely to be murdered and five times more likely to be robbed in Milwaukee. Likewise, crime can be measured by geography. Certain neighborhoods are safer than others. Beloit Police are working hard to improve city-wide safety with a number of creative initiatives. Meanwhile, Beloit would do well to try harder not only to market safer neighborhoods, but to develop more new alternatives.
• Quality schools. Put this at the top of any list. Here's why: When, say, new jobs created by a company coming to town attract potential new residents, parents are going to take a hard look at school systems throughout the region. They'll pick a house not just by the structure or the neighborhood, but by where their kids will attend school. So when school officials feel pressure to improve test scores or clean up classroom discipline it's not just because somebody wants to pick on board members or administrators or teachers. For the community to thrive, the schools must thrive. They must be well managed. They must be well behaved. They must turn out a good product. It can't be a wish and a hope. Aside from job creation, nothing is more important in determining the future.
• Full-service community. People choosing a place to live want access to good parks and recreation, nearby supermarkets, dining options and a reasonable selection of retail shopping opportunities. Beloit scores well on parks. Its dining spots are good enough already to attract people to drive from out of town just for the experience. But when it comes to shopping Beloit's biggest "asset" has been the interstate highway, conveniently located to funnel shoppers and their dollars to destinations out of town. That has improved, somewhat, with the addition of specialty shops downtown. But Beloit still lags well behind name-brand shopping options offered north and south. More attention should be directed at improving the retail mix. It matters to people who already live here, and it could be a game-changer for attracting potential residents.
BELOIT HAS A LOT of great things going for it and, in many ways, is poised to take the next step. And, like we said, what still remains to be done is not a mystery.
Nor is it easy. We get that.
Part of getting there, by the way, revolves around attitude. We who call this place home need to be its best salespeople. Running it down whenever the opportunity arises becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. No place is perfect, but any place can be better if the people pull together.
Think of it this way. Is Beloit better today than it was 25 years ago? Did that happen because people whined and complained and gave up?
Right. Point made. Now, just dream a little about what Beloit could be like 25 years from now and what it will take to make that happen.