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Tom Collins
Tom Collins

It’s been quite a long time since I’ve missed being student — been there, done that, thanks — but after my first tour of Waltham Elementary there was indeed a twinge of envy.

Between the natural light, the moveable furniture and (a pity to have to say this) the subtle security features, Waltham struck me as a thoroughly pleasant and comfortable setting to study and learn. Why couldn’t they have built schools this way when I was a child?

Even more impressive, though, was how Waltham pulled it off. District officials arm-wrestled with the occupants of its Tax Increment Financing districts, squeezed out the construction money and still managed to cut taxes.

That alone is mind-boggling, but what impresses me most is that Utica-Waltham taxpayers might not be finished reaping the benefits. A trip into the archives from a decade ago provides a hint that Utica may have more good news to celebrate when the Tax Man comes knocking again in May.

According to NewsTribune archives, Peru enjoyed a nice bump in real estate values after the completion of Parkside Elementary. The taxable value of Mayor Scott Harl’s home jumped from $55,287 to $55,906 after realtors and appraisers took note of a new school (always a plus for prospective homebuyers) and that seemingly small 1% increase translated into about $2,000 more in Harl’s fair-market value.

There’s every reason to think Utica-Waltham taxpayers will enjoy a similar bump, which could mean a welcome tandem of higher assessments and lower tax rates — and Utica already stands out for keeping its tax rates in check.

The jury is in and the new school is an unqualified triumph both for Waltham Elementary and for Utica as a whole.

Take a moment to look at Utica’s comprehensive plan, finalized in 2016, and the construction of Waltham Elementary completes a surprising cross-section of items on Utica’s to-do list:

A new, centrally-located school? Done.

Traffic controls at the junction of U.S. 6 and Route 178? Done.

Cleaning up the Illinois and Michigan Canal and repairing the towpath? Underway. Mayor David Stewart cut a deal with Springfield that already has the I&M spruced up and slated for re-filling in the next few years.

And Stewart reported significant progress on other wish-list items including getting museum hours expanded and doing more “destination marketing” by village officers.

“It’s absolutely great. I live by that comprehensive plan. When you have something of that caliber at your disposal, you want to make sure you check off the boxes because that’s going to help us row and succeed.”

And now an objective that once seemed absurd now seems to be just a few years within reach.

At the time the comprehensive plan was completed, the design-review firm forecast Utica’s population could more than triple to 5,000.

“We don’t see you getting to 10,000 people,” Mike Hoffman, vice president of Teska, said four years ago, “but could you get to 5,000 people someday? Yes.”

The notion no longer seems far-fetched. Utica has visibly boosted its desirability as a community and showed proof positive that a comprehensive plan need not collect dust in a forgotten file cabinet but instead serve as a blueprint for active growth.

Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.

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