The Merchant of Venice

The McKinley Bridge is broke — structurally and financially — and everyone wants it fixed. Trouble is, Mayor Tyrone Echols of Venice isn't about to give away the city's bridge. But he could be talked into trading it.

Did the man say anything?

"No, just had one of those ridiculous smirks on his face."

What businesses Venice does host are few and far between: a large lot on the southern edge of town where Chrysler cars and vans await shipment by rail; two mom-and-pop groceries; four small taverns; a Mobil gas station; a handful of light-industrial small businesses; two elementary schools and a high school. All the homes are modest, some neatly trimmed with flower gardens and painted fences. Most neighborhoods are liberally sprinkled with vacant or abandoned homes. Three public housing complexes are spread around town — one of them, the Viola Jones Homes, is where Echols spent much of his youth.

Interestingly, Echols himself earns a living catering to the poor in town. Along with his son, Tyrone Q. Echols Jr., he owns the Currency Exchange on Broadway. The business depended heavily for years on welfare recipients cashing their monthly checks, for which Echols' business got a per-check fee.

"It's not a money-making business anymore," says Echols. "The state revamped the welfare situation, and you don't get the welfare checks anymore. We used to be a direct delivery agent for that and for food stamps." All that has changed. Illinois now gives "link" cards to welfare recipients — no more checks or food stamps. "Probably put about a 40 percent dent in our business," he says. "They've got the card, so we lost out on that. It used to be probably $500-$600 a month just for handling the food stamps. We'd probably pick up another $500-$750 in cashing the checks. That's gone." The business now is mostly cashing other government checks. "We don't make anything much from it," he says with a sigh. "If you add it all together, you might come up with about $14,000 a year. You'd starve to death."

Fortunately, the mayor has a couple of other small sources of income. He and his son own about 20 pieces of property in Venice and neighboring Madison, ranging in assessed valuation from $240 to about $30,000. Echols' son also serves as the acting bridge manager.

As for his salary as mayor, Echols gets a mere $300 a month. The city survives on a total operating budget of about $1.7 million and a total municipal workforce of fewer than 30 people. It has its own police and streets departments, a garage and a volunteer fire department, with a comptroller and an administrative secretary constituting "City Hall."

The last raise given city employees was 15 years ago. "The one thing that helped keep this little city afloat was that we just didn't give any raises — the money was just not there," he says. "These municipal jobs will never be booming jobs, but they might keep you from starvation."

As mayor, he tries to scrape money from all sources. Though the sign you see heading north on Route 3 gives the population of Venice as 3,500 (based on 1990 census data), Echols believes it is undercounted, and he is painfully aware, as all mayors are, that a lot of federal and state money is attached to the underserved population. At the last census count, says Echols, he took a week off from work so he could help residents fill out the forms. "They had short forms and they had long forms, and it scared them," he recalls. "I tried to convince them that none of this information can be used to harm you, because there was no doubt that there were people in public housing who had relatives living with them that weren't on the lease. So, in reality, where I'm looking at this paper and it says two in the household, there were probably eight. The forms were asking conditions of the homes. I said, "These are things that will determine what extra money HUD will put in here for housing rehab. Don't be suspicious about everything.'

"I think Big Brother is watching you, too, but this is legitimate," he says he told them.

Now, he says, he is hoping the new-millennium census data will be more accurate. "Without question, we qualify for foreign aid," he adds quickly. "No question about it. And it's not getting much better."

The numbers leave little to the imagination. The 1998 "equalized assessed valuation" of the city is $9.5 million. A year earlier, it was $16.2 million, but then the city's largest industrial property — the AmerenUE power plant that sits in the shadow of the McKinley Bridge — was reassessed, and its value dropped by more than $5 million. When that happened, says Echols, the city took a $170,000-a-year hit, about 10 percent of its budget.

The AmerenUE power plant, a huge, hulking structure on the water's edge, has its own story. When it was first proposed, the area — literally under the bridge — was home to hundreds of blacks, as was a neighboring area to the south known as Kerr Island. A July 14, 1940, story in the now-defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat begins thusly: "Sixty Negro families are going to have to move out of their little homes under the east approach to McKinley Bridge to make room for Union Electric's new $10 million Venice Power plant. In the little Negro community known as Kerr Island, the plaint is that "We don't know where to go.' Most of the Negroes have paid a small ground rent for their holdings. A few probably are squatters. Each tenant has put up his own shack or house, sometimes using driftwood or castoff lumber."

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