Introduction to Soap Box Series

Introduction to Soap Box Series


Editor’s note: What follows is the text of the first Soap Box Speaker Series held May 22 at Memorial Hall in downtown Rockford.

Sponsored by The Rock River Times, the Soap Box Speaker Series is a series of three town meetings where people have the opportunity to speak on their own local issues.

The series is free to the public and will be held at Memorial Hall from 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, June 5 and June 26.

For more information, contact The Rock River Times at 964-9767.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the first Soap Box Series. I am Frank Schier, the editor and publisher of The Rock River Times, and I think as I walked up the stairs in here today, and as I entered the building, the rededication of this building and the flags out front there, I think could not be more fitting, that we are actually exercising our freedom of speech, that we are a community that is dedicated to the community, and we have a small start—all good things start small, and go from here. And I am sure you will speak of the quality of the speakers to bring more folks to our next series, and I suppose we should give you a little history on this.

First of all, this idea was brought to me by Bill Beard and Lloyd Gustafson. They had been speaking amongst themselves as they are wont to do, about the fact that too often people with valid opinions and members of our community feel they are excluded from having a voice in this community, a chance to express their views because the known “talking heads,” I guess we could call them, have access to the media, there are no forums that exist for the interchange of ideas between neighbors, and accordingly, they said, “Frank, what do you think we should do about this?”

I said, “Well, I happen to have a newspaper, and let’s start the Soap Box Series.” The way the Soap Box came about, there is an old cliché, “Get on your soap box.” My mother used to tell me about Bug House Square in Chicago, when she lived there, and literally you could have everybody from socialists to aldermen to noble citizens there, in Bug House Square, downtown Chicago, standing on soap boxes around the park, speaking. There, people would rotate the competition between the speakers and who could draw the largest crowd with their oratory, and of course, we believe in competitiveness as Americans, but we thought that the soul of voices and generous attention to individuals was more appropriate, accordingly, when we changed this forum.

I would like to say off the bat, you are probably going to hear some folks—several folks, address the Amerock project today. When we first started discussing this, Amerock was not an issue, so I do not want you to think that this is solely a forum for discussion of that issue. It came into the fore once the plan was revealed, which was not the plan that we had known, and accordingly, the issue became controversial. The format tonight is going to be five minutes for each speaker. You will see a 2-minute sign, a 1-minute sign, a 30-second sign and a stop sign. We have the highest technology with us tonight, and that is an egg timer behind you, from the 1950s. So when you hear that “ding,” you are probably going to be at about 30 seconds. However, we will be paying attention to it with our Timexes and glowing dots.

We look forward to discussions among speakers after the series. As my introductory remarks here, I would also like to do a little bit of closing; I am trying to keep this short and sweet, under 2 1/2 minutes, to get you up there, so I am going to add the speaker lineup for this evening.

First is Mr. Larry Morrissey; secondly, Mr. Gary Anderson; third will be Ms. Lori Gustafson; fourth will be Mr. David Sidney; fifth will be Mr. Paul Gunderman; and sixth will be Mr. Hans Rupert. Ladies and gentlemen, as Teddy Roosevelt used to say—and by the way, when you look at the picture of Teddy Roosevelt in front of this building, that’s my grandfather to his right there, who won the first Navy E on the battleship Missouri. He had Ironclad for 10 hits out of 10, and that was the first Navy E ever. So as Teddy Roosevelt would say, “Bully!” And let us proceed. Ladies and gentlemen, Larry Morrisey.

Larry Morrissey: Thank you very much for the wonderful introduction. I want to say welcome to everyone here tonight, my fellow speakers and rabble rousers, and friends in the Rockford area. When I was asked to speak this evening, I was one of the individuals who said, “Well, I’ve got something naturally to speak about.” I could probably speak on any issue, but there happens to be one that’s burning right now in my heart and in the hearts of many people in the Rockford area, not just the downtown here, River District. I’d like to tell you that I had prepared remarks to make tonight, but I don’t, except perhaps if you consider that prepared mindset that I have as an individual who’s dedicated my heart, my soul and my pocketbook, along with my family’s pocketbook, into this area we call the River District.

With that in mind, as I look at Rockford right now, I do believe we’re at a crossroads, not just downtown and the River District, although I think that is the case—that right now in the River District, we are on the proverbial tipping point—we could tip one way or the other. We could tip in a positive direction or a negative direction. But I think even more importantly, right now, today in the Rockford area, we are on an even more critical tipping point. We have a community, ladies and gentlemen, that is, plain and simple, under siege. The numbers in so many critical areas are just 180 degrees opposite of where they should be. We’ve got our schools that have test scores that are down here, and we have crime rates that are up here, unemployment rates up here.

We’ve got a community that is truly, truly struggling in so many ways. Manufacturing jobs—20 percent of them gone over the last couple years! And we have unemployment benefits that have been extended. When they’re gone, we’re going to be in worse shape than we are today. And that’s the scary thought in terms of our local economy. But I have not given up on Rockford, Ill., and I don’t think the people in this room have either. And at a time like now when we truly struggle, it’s a time when people need to gather like we have tonight to see where our mettle is, to see where we stand.

I don’t have much time, but I’m going to tell you one thing—it’s when we struggle, when we are at the bottom, we have to create our vision for the future. When we’re crushed and we’re in a state of disillusion, that’s when we have to put it all together into a vision that makes sense, not just for today and tomorrow, but for 20 years and 25 years. And with hundreds of—$160 million of planned federal and state and local infrastructure being developed, with plans and opportunities that we’ve long talked about for a riverfront, and I just brought a few samples to share with you, this vision that I’m talking about isn’t something that I’ve come up with—it’s something that I stand on the shoulders of so many others that came before today, and I’m here to tell you, there is a vision, a beautiful vision, for Rockford, Ill., our downtown River District, that’s been put together for years and years.

The latest thing was a thing called the Framework Study, published just last year, but going back to the 1970s. That’s how far back I’ve researched, but I know it’s probably further back from there. We’ve had vision plan after study—Operation Bullseye, some of you may remember that, a downtown Rockford market-rate housing study done in 1993, this RUDAT study done in the late 1970s, Destination River Center, Rockford 1994-1998. A thing called Rockford Central Area Corporation did a marketing and housing study. The visions, the studies are all there. And I’m here to tell you, not one of them talks about the need for more low-income housing in our downtown riverfront. That’s not me making it up, that’s a fact. And so when we contemplate and we develop strategies for our future, when we have the opportunity and we say, this is our vision, where we want to go, I think we should stick by it. But I’m here to tell you right now, we are in a state of crisis because there are individuals who have decided to take away from the hands of the people in this neighborhood we call the River District and our community, they are taking away our vision and our choice, and have tried to supplement it with somebody else’s.

And the guy whose vision is being taken and used right now is a developer out of Milwaukee who will make a lot of money on this project—nothing wrong with making money, but it’s for his vision, not ours. And we have, I believe, a city staff that’s supporting it. We’ve got a limited amount of time to act, but this is the test of our mettle—we are struggling, we have an opportunity to pull all together. June 17th, the Illinois Housing Development Authority will make a decision on whether to support or not support this project. It goes to a board. I’ll tell you right now, the marching orders aren’t coming from Springfield, they’re from Chicago, they’re coming from our mayor’s office. You tell our mayor right now that this is not a project that we want, this is not our vision; the poundage of studies has never supported low-income housing downtown. Even if this thing goes perfectly, which I don’t think it will, but assuming it did, it’s not part of our vision; and opportunity cost is too great. This is our chance to stand the line to make sure our vision is realized. Do not leave this room tonight without committing to fight this project. I’ll be with you. There’s more information if you need it after we’re all done. Thank you.

Frank Schier: Thank you, Mr. Morrissey. Our next speaker is Mr. Gary Anderson. Larry, of course, is the man who needs no introduction, and really, neither does Gary, but nonetheless, I think many of you may or may not know that he is the founder of Haight Village Historic District, for which I think we owe him a large debt of gratitude. He is an excellent architect, a consultant and preservationist, well known in Rockford and honored in our community. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Gary Anderson.

Gary Anderson: Five minutes goes pretty quick. You know, we talk about affordable housing in our community as one of our greatest assets, and really, it’s not. It’s probably one of the biggest deterrents to our own development. And I think we’ve got to realize that that’s definitely a big problem for us, because when you talk about affordable housing, the cost of housing is cheap, but that means you can’t afford to make improvements because the value is low. We have found that the assessors look at it that way, the bankers look at it that way, the property appraisers look at it that way, and we’ve seen in our own neighborhood where people want to pay more money for a piece of property, and they’re turned down because the banks feel that the value isn’t there.

So here you have somebody that’s made all these improvements, and we cannot recoup its expenses; we can’t even break even. And that’s a big problem. And I think we’re finding out—the city is finally finding out—that you can’t even afford to provide all the grants from CPV funding, to even justify making the improvements because the value isn’t there. Well, what’s caused that problem, and it’s been a lot of things—we have all been part of that problem. We don’t want to have our taxes go high, so keep that value low. How many of us decided that we really wanted to protest their taxes? Well, what you’re saying is, I don’t want any value on my property. When we do that, knowing what the down side is, what are we thinking? We’re slitting our own throats.

The other thing is that when you—we have our code enforcement. For years, we have allowed the slumlords to just run down property. We have accepted that as an OK thing, and we’ve got to discontinue that mode of operation. We have to raise the standard of living. I was just in some apartments the day before yesterday, and unbelievable what they were getting for this trash. Five units and it was a single-family home. And that we have allowed somebody to even live there—where is the code enforcement? Where is the Health Department to allow people to live in that kind of filth and disgust? But we have let it go. And the result is that it’s depressed property values in that neighborhood, and that’s through all the whole downtown area that we have allowed that to happen. And we have all been picking it up, whether it be Churchill’s Grove or, you know, Haight Village, Indian Terrace—we have taken the thing through and said, we’re not going to put up with this any more.

We fought for 20 years against the slum landlords in Haight Village. We won, but we lost because we did not have the support of our city officials at the time. And we need to have their support; we need their aggressiveness. We’ve started to see that in the Legal Department, in going after closing the Lincoln, closing the hotels out there on 11th Street, and going after a variety of other things that are really some of the bad things that are going on in our neighborhoods, and we need to be aggressive. We’ve got to cut to the chase; you know, we can’t be nice guys any longer because we’re finding that these people have too much of a resource and are making too much money on a piece of property. And the one property that we had in our neighborhood over 20 years, the guy made a million-two. That’s what you’re up against. When you see that kind of money, it doesn’t matter if you have to spend $20,000 or $30,000 or $50,000 for an attorney—he’s still making money. And he can just ignore all the notices from the Building Department and the Health Department—there’s no consequences. He ended up with a $1,800 fine from our judge. Thank you very much.

But look what the damages that he had done to the neighborhood. And that’s all over Rockford. That’s just not in our neighborhood. So we need to do something about that; we need to stand up and prohibit that from continuing. We also need to go to our bankers, go to our tax assessors and say, “We’ve had enough.” We need to find a new way of changing the way we tax ourselves. That’s a big problem. It’s not one that we can take on locally, but we’ve got to do something about it because it’s affecting all of us, all our neighborhoods. And when you can’t afford to develop a project because the market (1) isn’t good enough and we cannot even recoup your cost of your investment, we’ve got a problem, and we need to do something about that, and it’s gonna take everyone of us to help solve that problem because the problem is complex, it involves a ton of organizations and entities that all have a little bit of an effect on the cumulative total, is affordable housing. We have to change that, and there’s nothing wrong with having affordable housing, but we also need to be able to afford improving this property because right now we can’t do that any more. Thank you.

Frank Schier: Thank you, Mr. Anderson. The next speaker is Ms. Lori Gustafson. She is the president of Haight Village National Register Historic District, and one of the genesis idea people for this very thing.

Lori Gustafson: Thank you, Frank, and thank you for sponsoring this event. I think it’s important that we get up and speak out because this is our town; it means a lot to us, and I think people are taking advantage of us. I have four points to make in my opposition of the Amerock project. But before I do that, I want to make sure that I let you know that I have here a package of information, petitions, how to write letters to the Illinois Housing Development Authority to let them know that we oppose this. They need to hear from members of the community of Rockford, Ill., that we oppose the recommendations for these tax credits. So I have plenty of these if people want them after the speeches tonight.

I have four points to make.

(1) I want to address poor people. I believe the Amerock project is another medium for a group of guys to fill their pockets at the expense of others. I do not believe in the practice of treating a segment of our population like livestocks and warehousing them in profane housing. I believe integration of individuals of different economic and cultural backgrounds is a more respectable approach. This is the time we should support Hope VI efforts and undo programmed housing. Do you know that the Amerock proposal would lock in programmed housing for 39 years?

(2) The community burden. Our downtown neighborhoods face many challenges of protection from various predators. Our neighborhoods are home to residents who are committed givers who work continuously in stabilization efforts. Mr. Dixon has not established himself in Rockford as a community giver. I invite Mr. Dixon from Milwaukee to pursue a project of community pride quality before he asks for millions of our tax dollars.

(3) Representation. I am appalled and angered that our representatives, Mr. Doug Scott and Mr. Jim Caruso, show more interest in representing Milwaukee-based developer Tim Dixon than concern for the impact on the Rockford community. What will they gain at the expense of many? I believe they need to have higher regard for the taxpayers and voters of Rockford, Ill.

(4) Perception of values. Certain groups and individuals will not see that this area of town, filled with historic and unique properties, is a highly desirable place to locate. They continue negative marketing because they are unable to see for themselves the value and desirability. If they believe we are not good enough to deserve better use of our property, we might as well vacate this pop stand and invest our dollars in another community. Thank you.

Frank Schier: I love this pop stand. Thank you, Ms. Gustafson.

To be continued…

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