Rockford left out of state river development bill

The city of Rockford lost the chance to compete for some state riverfront development funds. Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey wondered out loud, during an April 21 press conference, why the city hadn’t been informed that a reworked Senate Bill 17 knocked Rockford and other cities out of the running.

Morrissey also tried to understand why the city was left out of the loop regarding changes to the bill, wondering if Rockford was intentionally kept in the dark.

“I would certainly hope that our current (Illinois Environmental Protection Agency) director and former economic development director wouldn’t feel that way,” he said.

Former Rockford Mayor Doug Scott serves as Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s director, while former City of Rockford Economic Development Director Elmo Dowd serves as policy adviser.

Scott stressed he had no ulterior motive.

“It really shouldn’t be seen that way at all,” he said, regarding allegations he didn’t alert Rockford to changes to Senate Bill 17.

He stressed the original bill called for five unnamed cities to receive funding. But Scott said lawmakers wanted to lower the project’s cost, so they chose to benefit only two cities.

“I’m certainly not going to argue with choices that are made,” he said.

Scott said it makes no sense for a state official to withhold support of a project that didn’t benefit his hometown.

“I understand they’re disappointed. (But) it’s strange that there’s an expectation that should have happened. It doesn’t work that way,” he said, referring to Rockford being selected.

Scott was defeated by Morrissey in April 2005, and Dowd recently left the Morrissey administration to join Scott’s team.

State Rep. Chuck Jefferson (D-67) said he met with Morrissey about plans to create a zone similar to Aurora’s in Rockford. He said the governor’s office assured the city it supported the move. According to Jefferson, the governor’s office is even providing direction about how to draft the proposed legislation.

“It’s just a matter of time before it becomes a reality,” Jefferson said.

He also said Scott shouldn’t be held accountable for Rockford being overlooked.

“(Scott) doesn’t really know what Rockford’s intentions are unless we clue him in,” Jefferson said.

However, in correspondence provided by the city to this paper, Morrissey wrote to Scott April 18, saying, “Although we have not received word on any formal application process, we would like to request that the City of Rockford be considered as one of the municipalities to be designated as a ‘River Edge Redevelopment Zone’ as outlined in the February press announcement.”

Senate Bill 17 would create the River Edge Redevelopment Zone Act, which bears some resemblance to the Enterprise Zone Act. Each zone—slated to reside in East St. Louis and Aurora—could exist up to 30 years.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) is charged with reviewing applications and certifying an area is a River Edge Zone. Incentives include sales tax exemptions on building material purchases for zone-related projects as well as investment income, jobs income and River Edge site remediation income tax credits. Rockford sent letters requesting designation on Dec. 8, 2005, and April 8.

Other incentives include dividend income tax, interest income tax and charitable contribution income tax deductions as well as property tax abatement. It would also provide cities with $2 million to finance Brownfields redevelopment through the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Morrissey said the original bill called for distributing $20 million to eligible communities. But now Aurora and East St. Louis will share only $2 million. He said he’s reserving judgment on the bill until it’s passed. Morrissey said he wondered what chance it has.

He recalled a State Sen. Dave Syversen-backed roads bill died because it served only nine counties. Morrissey said this bill could meet the same fate, since it benefits only two communities.

Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Spokesman Maggie Carson said legislators revised the bill after the writing and review process was complete. The revisions transformed the competitive process into a pilot program aimed at two cities. Carson explained Aurora was chosen as one of those cities. She also noted that Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner helped with the original concept.

“They had a (riverfront development) plan well under way,” Carson said.

She said if the pilot program proves successful, Rockford and other cities could benefit from it later.

“River cities that need development assistance is something that will always be with us,” Carson said.

The City of Rockford, Rockford Park District and Winnebago County also wrote the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) July 28 submitting an application for funds for the Riverwalk. The City followed up with letters to IDOT Oct. 5 and 6, 2005. Another letter went out to DCEO and IDOT Dec. 8, 2005 requesting the funds. Feb. 8 and March 16, 2006, respectively, letters were sent to Speaker of the House Michael Madigan (D) and Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) requesting Riverwalk and other funds.

“We have all that documentation and support,” Morrissey said. “As members of this community, Scott and Dowd were certainly aware of all the discussions with the local supporters of the project. We expect them to do their share of carrying the load of representing this community. The rules clearly changed just one week ago to just two cities; where before, we would have had a competitive chance in applying.”

Morrissey concluded: “Representative Jefferson was a co-sponsor of the original bill and was down there advocating for us. I think both he and myself were blindsided when the new legislation came out, and he’s no longer a co-sponsor of that.”

From the April 26-May 2, 2006, issue

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