Doing what is right for our residents.
That’s the mantra that pushes East Alton Mayor Joe Silkwood forward each day he serves. And he has a pretty good idea on what is right for East Alton, as that is where he grew up and still calls home.
Elected mayor in 2015, Silkwood had already spent many years in public service. He was East Alton’s treasurer for 16 years following a stint for several years as the director of the parks and recreation department.
He came in and filled the spot left vacant on the village’s Board of Trustees with the passing of Randy Mortland. And when former Mayor Fred Bright’s health forced him to leave the office, Silkwood was appointed to fill Bright’s unexpired term.
“After I retired, public service was always a part of my plan,” he says. “(This is) a great place to live and build a family. What makes it so unique is that it is a small town, but everything you might want, or need, is within reach.”
A challenged economy
Silkwood doesn’t deny that East Alton has faced a series of challenges, including the loss of jobs for residents. One such challenge came when Olin Winchester and the former Brass moved divisions to Mississippi. As he noted, this had an impact on not only East Alton, but the entire region.
“Olin Winchester and (Global) Brass are not closed,” he emphasizes. “We continue to work with them in every way we can. We are really pleased with the relationships we have with them.”
Another departure that may have had a more direct impact on the community was the Dynegy plant closing.
“These were good, high-paying jobs that were now gone,” Silkwood says. “That closure meant the loss of about 90 jobs and it really hurt the property tax revenues for both the village of East Alton and the Alton School District. Well over $10 million in wages left, along with the vendors and other residual revenues that went with the plant being here.”
He says in spite of the hardships, East Alton continues to overcome those challenges and make way for new opportunities.
“We are a small community that is focused on providing sound and solid services to those who are here, or who come here.”
To that end, economic incentives have been put in place to attract new businesses.
“We have established a TIF and business district, as well as a designated enterprise zone along the Route 3 corridor, which encompasses Eastgate Plaza,” Silkwood says. “We talk to developers as much as we can and whenever we can. And we’re excited about the opportunities with the new ownership at Wilshire Plaza.
“There is much opportunity for economic development and growth here. The ultimate success for any business is to have a good idea, then succeed at it. I also like to think more regionally, and would like to see more new ideas and new businesses on a regional scale.”
Silkwood also encourages East Alton residents to shop locally as much as they can.
Battling substance abuse
In terms of addressing the epidemic that is not only at the forefront in East Alton, but throughout the region and the nation, Silkwood says local law enforcement is fully engaged in the drug addiction battle on every level.
“In our community, the opiate problem is so addictive and so dangerous,” he says. “But we’re no different than any other community —no better, no worse. This is a national epidemic, a regional epidemic, and a community epidemic.
“We work diligently with the Madison County sheriff, state’s attorney and coroner. We keep moving the message forward. We have to educate everyone — especially the young. Addiction, to heroin or any other drug, directly affects all of us. No matter what gender or race, young or old.”
He says being able to administer the opiate antidote drug Narcan on the scene of an overdose has undoubtedly saved lives, as has the 24/7 availability of the prescription drug drop-off disposal box at Village Hall.
“But educating everyone about the dangers of the drug and easiness of becoming addicted … that is the first step,” he says. “You can’t sugarcoat the problem.”
A bright future for the village
The mayor made note of some of the many victories in East Alton.
“There are a lot of opportunities for our youth through our parks and recreation department,” he says. “Through partnerships such as those with the East Alton American Legion and local financial institutions, we are able to do so much more. We continue to host the annual soap box derby, as we have for many years. We are still working on developing another park behind the Keasler Recreational Complex, and VanPreter Park continues to be developed.
“We have an outstanding school district, and the East Alton Public Library does an excellent job of servicing our residents of all ages. The services for our senior citizens are excellent as well. We continue road improvements, including our recent work on East Alton Avenue, all along the connector from the Legion to Wood River. We are very proud of our responsiveness to our citizens.”
One of the goals Silkwood has set during his time in the mayor’s seat is a focus on infrastructure grants. He also says an increase in the number of homes will aid in resident retention. The Census Bureau estimates the population total for 2016 for the village at 6,141, a small dip from the 2010 total of 6,301.
He describes the village’s newest addition, the East Alton Historical Museum, opened in March at the Fred H. Bright Jr. Vital Services Building, as a “shining star for the community.”
“The committee’s work has been incredible. They have successfully preserved our community’s history — it might have otherwise been lost. It really is a must-see.”
And one fact many may not know about the mayor can be seen at the museum — Silkwood has his own baseball card, a memento from his days in the minor league.