Left Justified: Social services vs. developers (Davids vs. Goliaths)

The City Building Department still says “no permits” for Rockford Urban Ministries to move into 201 Seventh St. They want more “explanations” of the social services and the “fair trade” store. Rockford Urban Ministries (for which I work) has sought permits to demolish an old interior balcony and to build accessible bathrooms. The City permitting process could take 30 to 60 more days, enough time to financially crush the store. The City is using its bureaucratic prerogative to delay a social services office and a high-end fair-trade gift shop.

Seventh Street developers (yes, there are a few) do not believe the store will be “high end”enough. They say there’s too many social services already on Seventh Street: let’s get some business down here. But that’s why Rockford Urban Ministries planned a “fair trade” store up front, which would sell mission items from around the world. A church group ain’t good enough, though, so the bureaucratic delay.

Seventh Street’s been in decline for decades. Stores could not compete with Colonial Village, then CherryVale and now the strip-malled East State and Perryville. So Seventh Street sprouted bars, lingerie shops, massage parlors and now, discount cigarette stores. Addiction businesses move into depressed areas.

Rockford benefited from those ills. Sales tax revenue and political partnerships kept Seventh Street economically depressed. Businesses moved east and paved the best farmland in the world. Churches, too, faced that choice. Some left. First Evangelical Free Church used to be in this neighborhood (what could’ve been done if they’d stayed?).

Zion Lutheran Church voted to stay and spent millions rehabbing its building, making it accessible and family friendly. Under the leadership of Rev. Denver Bitner, Zion developed ministries that fixed up houses, gave meaningful work, and built a modern community center for the children of the neighborhood. Rockford Urban Ministries helped Zion go after the pornographic bookstore. RUM now occupies that space, and wants to move to a better facility up the street.

Along the way, RUM helped start Promised Land Employment; Rockford New Hope (which is rehabbing a Victorian house at 712 Kishwaukee); and the Total Health Awareness Team, which ministers to IV drug users and street sex providers. Social service agencies now outnumber the bars, cigarette joints and sex-related businesses here, especially if you consider all the AA and NA meeting places.

I believe a neighborhood should dry out and heal itself before it can grow economically. But developers, who can play Monopoly with old buildings, can’t wait. They forced Zion Development to forgo affordable housing and put some of its energies into “market-rate.” And now there’s a struggle for the meager government funds left: help the poor or the developers?

Rockford Urban Ministries thought the fair-trade store would be welcomed here with open arms, as we were combining shopping, fair trade, and an educational experience with social services. I naively thought we could apply for government TIF funds that help struggling businesses in this neighborhood. Foolish me!

What will it take to revitalize Seventh Street? How about love! Maybe a tolerance for different approaches to redevelopment. Maybe caring for the neighbors as well as for the neighborhood buildings.

The “fair trade” store has already missed out on this year’s Christmas shopping season and will have to lean on supporters even more to get through the winter. We pray for some help, from the mayor, the aldermen, from the citizens. Otherwise, we might end up homeless on Seventh Street.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

From the Oct. 19-25, 2005, issue

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