Jailing image and access

Great downtowns across the country enjoy varied access, development of the surrounding areas and progressive images.

Let’s think about those qualities for Rockford’s River District, considering the proposed jail and its costs.

Remember the advertising slogan the folks down in Stillman Valley used when they were fighting construction of a women’s prison in their backyard—“Image is everything”?

Many people in the River District are dreading what the massive, proposed county jail will do to the image they have worked so hard to improve. They worry about what this towering, four-block complex will do to the value of their businesses and real estate. “If this thing is built, kiss downtown good-bye,” said one Realtor.

Some people, like County Board Member John Sweeney (R-14), think our downtown should be a “Government Center.” Those who are like-minded see the massive spending associated with the new federal courthouse and the new county jail as good for jobs and our future.

Not so. Such vision is short sighted. In the future, this proposed criminal justice, industrial complex will cost more jobs and development than it creates. In the future, people will only see the west side of the River District as a place of penalty, and where’s the justice in that?

Many of us have fought the overconcen-tration of social services in the area. We have our commercial businesses here, and we disagree with the “Government Center” concept. We have lost enough of our prime real estate to institutions that close off commercial development in the future. The River District belongs to us and all the citizens of the county. The government is here at our behest, not to dominate us and ruin our livelihoods. Our own tax money should not threaten our very existence.

Think of the threatening images of the Tower of London, the Bastille and KGB Headquarters on Moscow’s Dzerzhinsky Square. Those buildings represented fear and the failure of those societies.

If history doesn’t strike you, think of the threatening image of the Tower of Doom in the Lord of the Rings movie.

The new jail, as proposed, will be huge, taking up four blocks. It will occupy as much land as the Public Safety Building, the MetroCentre and City Hall put together.

The design has the building set back from the street, a suburban rather than urban design. This behemoth will not blend into the neighborhood—it will dominate it.

Then the effect on traffic flow must be considered. The mall blocks north-south traffic on Main Street. The Public Safety Building has cut off north-south traffic on Court Street. The proposed jail would cut off north-south traffic on Rockton Avenue, and not extend Horsman to Chestnut.

That only leaves Wyman Street (a one-way going north), Church Street (a one-way going south), and Winnebago Street for access to north and southwest Rockford.

Everything from Winnebago to Avon would be cut off by the proposed jail. That area is prime for the development that the federal courthouse and proposed jail would supposedly bring to the area that Cedar Street runs through and our empty rail yard.

Streets are like arteries. That’s why major streets are called arterials. If you cut off an artery or major arterial, the limb, organs or areas for growth and life die.

Likewise, if you reduce the blood or traffic flow, areas of existing life diminish and become weak.

Merchants on State Street from the west side’s Kilburn Avenue to the east side’s Longwood Street should be very alarmed. The redirection of Route 20, State Street, is part of the proposed jail plan. Just after Kilburn Avenue, a swing-off curve connecting to Chestnut Street will start a new downtown bypass for Route 20 going east. Much of the traffic that didn’t take a hard right on Rockton Avenue (which will be gone under the new plan) and used to proceed across the State Street Bridge will now take the new Chestnut Street bypass.

Say good-bye to many of the cars that used to drive by the bus station, Kryptonite, Paragon, Subway, National City Bank, Gerlinde’s Water Street Café, Sal’s Diner, Carlyle Brewery, The Hideaway, Waldo’s Florist, Project First Rate, Rockford Furniture, CJ’s Lounge, Schleicher Printing, The Surf Lounge, Capri Restaurant, Glamour Bridal and Jewelry, Bank One, Little Italy, Club 505, Deli Italia, JG’s Tattoos, The Office, 5 Spa, Digits, MedicineMan, Fran Kral, Bacchus, Irish Rose, Rockford Arts Council, Midway Theater, Faust Landmark, Big Cities, Saturn Studios, Daily’s Auto Upholstery, Quality Quick Print and Copying, Uncle Nick’s, Oh! Zone, Concord Custom Cleaners, McDonald’s and U.S. Bank. Sorry if we left anyone out, but if the jail is built as proposed, you’ll get used to being left out.

Think of what the installation of the mall did to our thriving downtown in the 1970s. Like the proposed jail, the mall was another short-sighted bandage that acted like a tourniquet and damaged our vision for years to come. We have recovered and have just started on the road of success.

That we must travel the road to improved jail facilities and improved pre-incarceration alternatives cannot be denied. As we have argued editorially before, “Jail moratorium will hold the load”, let’s not put the cart before the horse as we go down that road. The jail is the cart; alternative programs are the horses that will pull us to a good decision on how big this jail should really be—and really cost.

We have already collected more than $8 million in sales tax for the jail in just four months! Let’s implement as many alternative programs as possible to reduce the jail population first. We have the money.

Let’s act on alternative programs, and delay construction. Let’s save some money—our taxpayer dollars. As we noted in last week’s article, “Concerns voiced at jail meeting,” 36.1 percent of the cost of the jail consists of interest on the debt incurred by immediate construction. If we save our sales tax dollars and build the jail when we have enough money, we will save at least $36 million in interest alone. That would be intelligent and responsible stewardship of our taxes by our elected officials.

In addition, we can reduce the need for as many beds if the jail can be smaller. We can save even more money. Four months of sales tax equals $8 million. One year’s collection equals $24 million. In three years, we could have almost $70 million saved and spend $2 million on alternative programs. That’s a smart goal.

We should also take sharp aim at only taking up two blocks with the jail and keeping our north and south access. Business associations like Southwest Ideas for Today and Tomorrow (SWIFTT), North End Commons and the River District should support and lobby for this moratorium, as should every taxpayer in Winnebago County. Otherwise, we will be known as the largest criminal industrial complex in the state. Across the country, of the three jail referendums that passed in the same election as ours, only Winnebago County elected to build its jail complex downtown. What’s with us? Are we trying to kill our central business district to ensure urban sprawl?

A far West State Street site should be explored to save us even more money with lower real estate costs. Such a site could have a commercial berm on far West State Street that could actually earn the county money and actually develop, not cut off, the area it occupies.

Speaking of occupation, as Sheriff Dick Meyers has acknowledged, one-third of our existing inmates are charged with misdemeanors. What can we do with them through alternative programs?

More judges and staff are a real immediate possibility, too. Let’s get creative with the state and trade out the funds needed.

We need to think. We need to continue to build a great downtown that enjoys varied access, develops the surrounding areas and establishes our progressive image. Constantly acting in crisis management mode is short sighted and creates long-term mistakes.

To discuss these concepts and learn more about alternative programs, please let us listen to an expert on the subject. Every Winnebago County taxpayer should
be interested in attending the presentation next Monday, Feb. 16, 6 p.m., at Memorial Hall. Western Illinois University Professor and crime expert Dr. Michael Hazlett will discuss the size of the proposed jail, crime and alternative programs.

Be there. Save yourself some tax dollars. Save your downtown. Save your access to northwest and southwest Rockford and their development. Like Ogle County and Stillman Valley, that rejected the federal immigration detention center save your image. Let’s avoid jailing ourselves.

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