Something happened last week in Rockford that was unique. A combined effort by individual, concerned citizens, community spirited businesses and a bi-partisan effort by elected officials resulted in airline service returning to the city. This happened during the biggest downturn in history for the airline industry, at an airport that has a very poor track record for retaining air passenger service. Why did this happen? The answer is vision and good old-fashioned hard work. Spearheaded by Bob OBrien and the Airport Board of Commissioners, enthusiasm that hasnt been seen in Rockford in a long time emerged. Now the challenge becomes how we recreate this for the whole region.
Due to a collection of various circumstances and causes, Rockfordians have become accustomed to the mediocre. However, what Bob and the airport board showed the community was that we dont have to settle for less than the best. Now the challenge becomes to channel this enthusiasm into other needed areas in the community. The downtown has suffered from a lack of enthusiasm for decades. The River District and a handful of business owners who have seen the potential and have made vast strides in trying to revive the citys heart. However, major meaningful changes will not occur until the community as a whole, and especially our elected officials, see the need to make it happen. Rockford was founded in the downtown area, and until the 1970s, it was the symbol of Rockford. Now we have a vast sprawl of box stores cluttering our east side, with roadways that have become congested and littered with stoplights every 500 yards. Is this the heart of Rockford?
I challenge the community, businesses and our elected leaders to take a look at the downtown. If a convention center is to be built, it must be built downtown. If it isnt, the MetroCentre, the Coronado and every other venue in the downtown will die a slow, lingering death.
We had the opportunity 40 years ago to bring people into the downtown via I-90; however the city didnt want the negative influence of Chicago driving through the heart of the city, so the road was built far to the east. Had I-90 passed 15 miles farther west, we wouldnt be discussing this issue now. We now have an opportunity to start the rebirth process, if we are willing to take the model that the airport has created. Involve the citizens, involve the businesses, think out of the box and stand on the roofs of gas stations to make your point if you have to. Channel the enthusiasm before its gone. Remember the quote by Robert F. Kennedy, Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream of things that never were and say, why not?
David Lindberg is chairman of the Greater Rockford Transportation Coalition.