Morrissey: Rockford’s best days lie ahead

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117449944332376.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘During his State of the City address, Mayor Morrissey stated his case for the April sales tax referendum to fund infrastructure improvements.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11744996002194.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Morrissey highlighted accomplishments in the past year.‘);

“This has been an extraordinary year, filled with promises kept, challenges met and successes achieved,” Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) proclaimed during his March 15 State of the City address. “Rockford continues to rise, and the state of the city is strong and ready for action.”

The address, titled “Leading Boldly—Working Together,” was Morrissey’s second since taking office 22 months ago. Themes of innovation and partnership were prevalent.

According to the mayor’s office, the speech drew a crowd of 2,000 to the Coronado Theatre.

Morrissey began by stating accomplishments over the past year, citing lower unemployment, crime and truancy rates.

To much applause, the mayor punctuated the city’s deeds by adding, “Once and for all, the vehicle sticker is dead!”

“As go our schools, so goes the City of Rockford,” Morrissey said, turning to the issue of education. “We know there is a direct connection between the overall health of a city and its truancy rate.”

Morrissey noted Rockford Public School District 205 truancy continues to drop, indicating higher attendance means more state dollars for the district. The mayor said high school attendance rates still need improvement. He said he hopes programs such as the Mayor’s Youth Summit, the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council and the “nFactor” will help.

“We will not accept low-performing schools in any neighborhood,” Morrissey said in support of the district’s new School Attendance Zone Plan. “We can build strong schools in every neighborhood and strong neighborhoods to support every school.”

Regarding higher education, Morrissey called for the development of a “University Village at the Rockford College campus.” The mayor said state legislation could make the campus a reality by facilitating public-private investment and partnerships.

“We must engineer the right programs to meet our young people where they are and help them to get their degrees right here in Rockford,” Morrissey argued, announcing the formation of the Community Education Partnership.

Fritz Jacobi, publisher of the local daily, will serve as chairman of the Partnership, which will be organized in conjunction with the United Way and the Mayor’s office.

One of the goals the group hopes to achieve is a new initiative called “The Rockford Promise,” which would pay college tuition costs for students graduating from Rockford public schools.

Morrissey touted the success of the city’s Weed and Seed program, which focuses on cleaning up high-crime areas.

“Our Weed and Seed effort has led to real crime reduction, preparing the neighborhood for future investment,” the mayor reported, praising Rockford Chief of Police Chet Epperson.

Morrissey noted the addition of personnel to gang and community policing units, changes in command structure, formation of the M3 Street Team and operations in partnership with other law enforcement agencies to combat “overt drug selling.”

Morrissey indicated the Police Department will soon operate under the “CompStat” management model, based on a program made famous by the New York City Police. The mayor said this approach reduces costs and crime.

The newly-remodeled 911 Call Center, featuring new radio, phone and computer-aided dispatch systems, was also boasted. Morrissey added the facility now has a global positioning system (GPS) that will track the location of cell phone callers to within 125 meters.

A new ordinance targeting aggressive panhandling, Morrissey said, will also improve the quality of life for Rockford citizens.

The mayor highlighted the importance of neighborhood groups in solving and preventing crimes. A revival of the Neighborhood Network, a citizen group promoting strong and healthy neighborhoods, is part of the proposed 2007 budget approved by aldermen Mar. 19.

On the subject of housing, the mayor proudly reported a record number of building permits were issued on the west side in 2006.

Perhaps the loudest round of applause came when the mayor referenced demolishing the Jane Addams housing complex. The mayor indicated similar changes are in store for the Concord Commons and Fairgrounds projects.

“Our partnership with Winnebago County in the Hope VI area around Concord Commons has already provided 18 newly-constructed homes,” Morrissey said. “In addition, 52 rental units have been constructed, and the installation of new curbs, gutters, storm sewers and the resurfacing of eight streets is ushering in a complete neighborhood renaissance.”

Morrissey invited Rockford Public School District 205 to join the city and county in the new employee assistance housing incentive program, which offers down payment assistance in certain areas to city and county employees.

While proud of what the city has accomplished in the past year, Morrissey conceded there is still much to be done.

“Our city’s most significant policy challenge is poverty,” Morrissey acknowledged, referencing our continued presence on the state’s warning list. “We can no longer continue to lose our middle-class families to surrounding regions.”

In an effort to revitalize older neighborhoods, the mayor announced his intent to launch a Housing Redevelopment Incentive Plan. The program would essentially freeze the property tax rate as rehabilitations and neighborhood improvements increase property values for up to 10 years in targeted areas. Morrissey said he hopes the move will lure and keep young talent in Rockford.

The State of Illinois already offers a similar tax rebate program for rehabilitation of historic-designated properties. Morrissey’s plan is to create a partnership among the city, county and school district to offer investment incentives for owner-occupied homes in Rockford’s older neighborhoods.

The mayor also said he plans to promote green and high-efficiency building standards as an added incentive.

Morrissey said his administration is equally dedicated to improving government as it is to improving neighborhoods and education. He said savings from changes to the city employee health insurance program resulted in new equipment for the Police and Fire Departments.

Morrissey linked the 2006 acquisition of the historic National Guard Armory to future inclusion in the Riverfront Museum campus, although no specific plan for the building was offered.

A Regional Center for Design and Planning will be created in 2007, Morrissey said. The center will serve as offices to the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning (R-MAP), formerly RATS, and will house plans for various corridors throughout the region. He promised the facility will allow everyone a chance to be a part of the planning process.

Morrissey has said the center was inspired by similar galleries he saw on a recent visit to China, likening them to sales and marketing offices for cities.

“We are not short of good ideas in Rockford,” Morrissey explained. “We are short on execution.”

In his 2006 address, the mayor first announced plans for a new management system, ROCKSTAT, aimed at improving the efficiency and accountability of various city departments.

“I am proud to tell you tonight that our ROCKSTAT system is no longer a concept,” Morrissey reported from the Coronado stage a year later. “It is a reality.”

ROCKSTAT is based on Baltimore’s CitiStat system, applying the CompStat model to city government. The management system’s nucleus is a computer-based customer service request (CSR) system purchased in 2006.

The new management style includes monthly accountability sessions with department heads.

“ROCKSTAT will bring you a method of accountability to help our march towards Excellence Everywhere,” the mayor pledged. “It is a management process that relies on real-time information, not anecdotal evidence.”

Morrissey expressed hope the philosophy will be adopted by other agencies throughout the community; a concept he calls “CommunityStat.”

Nestled between flags behind a spotlighted podium at stage right, Morrissey’s attention turned to economic development. A graph showing a steady decline
in unemployment was projected on a screen above center stage. Morrissey boasted January’s unemployment numbers were the lowest in years.

The mayor was quick to point out several other “wins,” including the new Lowe’s distribution center, a $40 million upgrade to UPS’s sorting facility at the airport, and the expansion of Anderson Packaging. Combined, these investments in Rockford equate to 1,150 new jobs.

Morrissey pledged his commitment to continuing this “culture of growth.”

“Where we have failed to invest in infrastructure, where we have failed to partner, we have quite simply failed our citizens,” Morrissey stated candidly. “We must strive for bringing Rockford to the world so that the world, in turn, can come to Rockford to invest.”

To compete in a global market, Morrissey stressed the importance of attracting “the best and brightest talent.” To achieve that end, a $75,000 report was commissioned and recently completed.

“So how did we do?” Morrissey asked. “Not terrible, but not good enough, either.”

Of the 21 points in the report, Morrissey chose to focus on the one indicating a need to exploit the riverfront downtown. The mayor has been planning a Riverwalk project, similar to downtown riverfront utilization in Naperville, which he says will bring a huge return on investment.

A fervent advocate for downtown development, Morrissey applauded the renovation of the old Gas and Electric Building, which has brought two more businesses to the area, Watt Publishing and the Mid-Northern Group.

The building is owned by Joseph James Partners, a real estate agency owned by brothers Matthew and Peter Provenzano. The Provenzanos also manage SupplyCore, Inc., a local military defense contractor that donated heavily to Morrissey’s campaign for mayor. The Provenzanos teamed with Paul Nicolosi of the Buckley Companies on the project.

“We have also seen the openings of downtown retail businesses,” he added, acknowledging 15 new starts in 2006. “Fresh, new business concepts such as these will create the ‘stroll zone’ that is so important for the revitalization of our downtown community.”

Morrissey described the MetroCentre, soon to be renovated, as downtown’s centerpiece.

“Despite the criticism that seems to threaten to hold us back on major improvements to our city government, we are moving forward with this most important project,” he declared. “We are taking our downtown jewel from a state of decay to state of the art.”

With Chicago in the running to host the Olympic Games in 2016, Morrissey pledged to continue building our relationship with the Windy City.

“The investments that will prepare us to welcome the world to the Olympic Games are the same investments that help us compete in the world each and every day,” he argued.

The mayor said he believes rail will be an essential element in Rockford’s role in the Games should the International Olympic Committee select Chicago. We’ll have to wait until 2009 to see if Chicago is selected over international competition vying for the Games.

Morrissey discussed the city’s new brand identity, “Real. Original. Rockford, Illinois, USA.”

“It suggests our location in the literal and figurative heart of America,” he said. “Our new regional brand identity shows a unified face to the world—one of which we can be proud.”

An update on the mayor’s “Four R’s” (Roads, Rail, River and the fiber-optic Ring) was presented next.

Making a point of saving roads for last, the mayor pledged continued effort to bring commuter rail, absent since the early 1980s, back to Rockford.

“We are asking Senate leaders to support the $62 million price tag for the needed improvements,” he reported, calling it “a small price to pay” as he pointed out the Tollway Authority is spending more than that just for ramp improvements at I-90 and Bypass 20. “We need it not just for Rockford, but also for the entire northwest part of the state.”

The mayor suggests moving the freight yards out of the South Main Street area downtown and making the site more transit-oriented, which he says will create hotel, residential and retail opportunities.

Morrissey has also discussed the possibility of turning the area into an “Olympic Village” if Chicago lands the 2016 Games.

The next “R” Morrissey focused on was the river, highlighting development of the Riverwalk and a possible whitewater park. He said he hopes mixed-use zoning along the Madison Street corridor will also help achieve a vibrant riverfront.

Moving on to the fiber optic ring, Morrissey argued, “Affordable, high-bandwidth digital communication is key for working effectively and efficiently in today’s world.”

The Northern Illinois Technology Triangle (NITT) would connect Rockford fiber-optically to Chicago along I-90 and to Rochelle along I-39. The remaining fiber optic line would complete the triangle along I-88. The NITT Commission was officially created by the City Council Mar. 19, with the goal of obtaining state money for the project.

Departing for a moment from the R’s, the mayor gave an update on the Water Rehabilitation Plan to improve the overall quality of water and how it’s delivered.

“I am proud to report to you today that our plan is on time and on target,” Morrissey beamed. “In 2008, we will be able to assure our citizens with the greatest of confidence, ‘Your water is of the highest quality.’”

With only roads left, Morrissey stumped for votes to pass his April sales tax referendum to fund infrastructure improvements.

“It’s common sense to start getting support for our roads from the out-of-towners who drive on them but don’t pay them,” he pressed, dangling property tax relief before voters. “It’s common sense to build roads, not debt…We will actually pay less, but get more.”

Passing the referendum is crucial, he argued, to raising matching funds to move ahead with projects the state and federal governments have more than $50 million earmarked for locally over the next five years.

Morrissey has promised the sales tax will not be used toward the Riverwalk project, which he said will be funded by state and federal dollars.

Morrissey punctuated his plea by reminding citizens the proposed 1 percentage point sales tax increase will expire in five years, imploring the city to keep its promises. The tax can only be extended by another referendum.

“Make no mistake about it,” he threatened subtly, “this referendum is our road program. This referendum is our future.”

In his conclusion, Morrissey stressed the importance of Rockford being known as an innovative community.

“Sure, some ideas will work, and others might not, but there is an intrinsic value in innovation,” the mayor closed. “We have the creative energy to change the course of our lives, of our city, even our nation and our world. It is up to each of us to not only discuss the possible, but also make it inevitable.”

from the March 21-27, 2007, issue

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