Jeff Biggers will be speaking on Illinois history and his hopes for its future at Harrisburg Library 6:30 p.m. Friday.
Biggers, now living in Iowa, is on a book tour promoting the recently released second edition of his book "Reckoning at Eagle Creek" in which he explores the impact of the coal industry on the region.
Biggers" grandparents lived at Eagle Creek and he has fond memories of visiting them as a boy. When he returned as an adult he found little trace of the landmarks he knew. The land had been strip mined away.
Biggers has made a reputation for himself in Southern Illinois as being opposed to strip mining and fracking, but he says his message Friday is one of a sustainable future for the region.
"I"ve spoken so many times in the Harrisburg area, but what I really want to talk about is our history and why history matters," Biggers said.
He wants people to ponder who Williams Hill is named for and why Eagle Creek is called what it is. He takes inspiration from those who came to Southern Illinois and the things they did to keep the region economically viable. Biggers believes the innovative spirit remains in the region and is optimistic about a future not reliant on boom and bust industries leaving towns worse off after the bust than before the boom. He believes Southern Illinois should look at its history and become inspired by its forefathers.
Among Biggers" innovators were the coal miners at Virden on Oct. 12, 1898. Sunday was Coal Miner"s Day, marking the day striking coal miners stood their ground in Virden in a battle with strike-breakers. Seven miners and five armed guards were killed and today we enjoy safer work places, eight-hour shifts and better pay due to their sacrifice.
"It"s about who"s going to stand up for our community. Who is going to defend us? In this case it was the coal miners," Biggers said.
The country — especially the coal miners — took notice of Southern Illinois.
"The people in the community were ready to defend themselves and hold the line and it wasn"t really about the coal, it was about dignity," Biggers said.
"Because of that strike we have an eight-hour work day and 30 percent increase in wages."
Biggers believes Southern Illinois" greatest natural resource is its people and a healthy economy needs diversification.
"The only way we create a good economy is with capital and innovators. We"ve got innovators coming out of our ears," Biggers said.
What we lack is capital. Southern Illinois does not get its fair share of tax dollars and gives up much of what it does get, Biggers said.
He proposes a coalfields regeneration fund. He likens it to a G.I. Bill for coal mining communities.
In eastern Kentucky companies are offering jobs in helping businesses achieve energy efficiency. In Iowa the government invested $6 million in start up funds for companies manufacturing the parts for wind turbines.
"Why can"t Harrisburg or Eldorado have a part of that?" he said.
He says the infrastructure is already in place for such manufacturing with rivers supporting barge traffic, rail lines and improved highways.
He believes three things could lead to a sustainable economy in Southern Illinois. The first is energy efficiency, the second is clean energy manufacture and the third is a reforestation campaign.
"Let"s turn the bulldozers around," he said.
"Not simply planting grass, but planting trees. It all takes capital."
Biggers is confident the people in the region are desirous of economic improvement and have the will to make it happen. He envisions young entrepreneurs starting new businesses and new not-for-profits that benefit the people. He says the region"s thriving wine industry could serve as an example. The state supported this new industry and innovators took the opportunity.
"I don"t think Southern Illinois lacks in ideas. What they lack is their fair share of taxes to create an economy. Not a boom and bust economy, but a sustainable economy," Biggers said.