Hanging Out in Rockford: Downtown Rockford is revived

I’ve been writing about this so long I get tired of writing about it. I am sick and tired of people saying downtown needs to be redeveloped. It has been redeveloped. What it needs is for people to quit talking about it negatively. Every time some well-meaning newspaper reporter writes a column about the possible redevelopment of downtown, it sets us back another year. People on the east side think, “I’ll wait to go downtown until it is redeveloped.”

Then, there are all the things that are supposed to “save” us. A couple of years ago, that was the Coronado. The Coronado was going to save downtown. Now, it is the redevelopment of the MetroCentre. Now, if we don’t redevelop the MetroCentre, it could hold up the redevelopment of downtown. Phooey! We hire a convention and visitors bureau chief, and he joins the chorus: “We currently do not have a critical mass of urban visitor experiences to be able to promote downtown.” Bull—-! That’s what I say. If you wanted it easy, you should have stayed in Hawaii.

Come downtown and see what we have done. Back in 1996, there was a flurry of interest and development. That is about the time we added Bacchus, Paragon and Octane. Laura Brandt, the reigning downtown renewal person, and I decided to hold a downtown redevelopment celebration. We called it Success Downtown ’96. Then, I was on the kick that if Charles Box and Dianne Voneida would just announce they had succeeded in restoring downtown, we could get rid of all the negativity and move on with the second stage of development.

We held an event at the Irish Rose. We gave everybody an award. The next day in a double-page centerspread in the Rockford Register Star, Dianne took credit. She said it had something to do with the federal money they had plowed into downtown. It didn’t. Then, as now, it had to do with the people—the people who believe in downtown, and the people who love the old buildings and despise the crap that exists on the east side. Everyone was really positive about downtown for one day. Before the week was out, the naysayers were back in full force, and by a month or so, we had returned to the mantra of redevelopment.

There are a lot of great places downtown, too many to list here. There is no other area in the city where there is such a congregation of forward-thinking businesses. There is nowhere else in the city that has our cultural or ethnic diversification. No other area in the city has our sense of community. We elected the new mayor. No one thought we could do that. There was a rumor of invincibility about the old Democratic political machine. No one good had ever run against it. Downtown put together the mayor’s winning campaign. Downtown celebrated his victory at Paragon.

All the brightest, smartest, coolest people live or play or work downtown. The old buildings attract them. The sense of community attracts them. They aren’t interested in a multiple hundred thousand dollar tract palace where the door jamb moves when you press the doorbell. They aren’t interested in some purveyor-prepared and distributed food masking itself as gourmet. They like the hip atmosphere. They like real things. They go out to hear real music, live. Try doing any of that on the east side.

What we need to do is to start talking about our downtown in a positive sense. People who come here from other places do. They see it differently than the folks over at the Register Star. Their ideas are their own. They are not formed by some opinion piece in the paper that is poorly researched or poorly thought out. Their minds are open, open to what is really going on—open to the local revival that is, and will continue to be, downtown.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the Nov. 29 – Dec. 5, 2006, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!