Soap Box Series—Part 2

Soap Box Series—Part 2


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

The first part of this text, including speeches by Frank Schier, Larry Morrissey, Gary Anderson, and Lori Gustafson, was included in the May 28-June 3 issue of The Rock River Times.

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.

Frank Schier: Our next speaker will be Mr. David Sidney. He is a student of urban planning—appropriate—and the president of the Students for New Urbanism. Mr. David Sidney.

David Sidney: Thank you. I spent two days trying to prepare a speech for this, and then I just realized that a lot of good things come directly from the heart, so I guess I’m going to negate everything that I’ve just prepared tonight. I’m going to speak to you on behalf, as a citizen of this town, a student of urban and regional planning. And today I had the great opportunity to be over at Auburn High School, speaking with the freshmen, and the sole goal of me being over there today was to talk about the Gifted Program and my experience there, and the students took much more interest in the fact that I was majoring in city planner.

They brought up questions that I’ve harped on in my editorials in the paper, and it was exciting to see because here you have freshmen thinking the same things that I am thinking, but they’re not majoring in what I’m doing. They were asking me questions as, why Showplace 16 locates so far out that they cannot get there unless their parents have to carpool them there. They’re asking me questions as to why downtown does not have a vibrant place for them to go on weekends. They’re asking me questions, why do we not have a university here? And just hearing these students saying that, I said, “You know, you’ve been saying the same things I’ve been asking.” And I think it’s because even though I’m only 20 years old, I believe that Rockford for its entire lifespan has decided that it could not get anything good, that we had to reject anything that was good, and because of that, we have become so blind that anything that happens good, we push it aside.

We look at the fact that we rejected NIU. I told the students, we had the opportunity to have a university here, but we rejected that. Not us in this room, but the people who were in control. And we have failed, as Larry said, we have planned downtowns, we’ve come up with these bold ideas, re-envisioning what our downtown should be. And the problem is, we’ve never gotten beyond that phase. We always like to be mesmerized by what it could be. But when it comes to the implementation process, I don’t see anyone talking about that. I don’t see anyone to say, “OK, this is our 10-year, our 20-year goal, and this is how we’re going to get there.”

The fact that we’ve got a jail project being built in downtown says a lot about this community. It says that when it came to supporting a tax referendum for schools, 51 percent—it was always 51 percent, 52 percent—but we easily supported a downtown jail, and then we have people on that committee who look at the jail as just housing people, rather than it could be an impetus to sort of spur a new type of development. It’s happened in Arlington, Va., it’s happened in Bethesda, it’s happened in Portland, it’s happened in Seattle, it’s happened everywhere. Why can’t it happen here? We are rejecting the fact that this is a great city; we are strategically located between Madison, Chicago, and Milwaukee. And we are neglecting that fact. Manufacturers and businesses would love to locate here, I guarantee you that. But the fact that we don’t have the quality school systems, the fact that we don’t stand up for what we truly want—these companies don’t want to locate here, and so we’ve got to change that.

And we have a problem. If you look at census data, you see that the population is aging. It’s not going this way, it’s going this way. That means we are not retaining our youth. That means that you have the opportunity to stand up to projects like Amerock and say, “We want better,” so that way, I feel much more encouraged to return here. Because a lot of us go off to college—a lot of people go here, but only 10 percent of the Rockford people are higher educated. What happens to those people that do go off to college? They go elsewhere because they say, “Rockford doesn’t like me; it’s never supported me, so I’m going to go somewhere else where they do.” And I’m telling you right now that I’m willing to be a part of that change, to say that, OK, now is the time to come to the table and get beyond the blind stage and say, “OK, how are we going to implement the downtown River District plan? How are we going to make the jail project something that stands for something good in this community? And how are we going to turn the Amerock Building, then from being 88 percent low income to 88 percent market-rate income? So that way, when I come back here, I have a place to live. Thank you.

Frank Schier: Well said. And thank you. Thank you very much, Mr. Sidney. Our next speaker is going to be Mr. Paul Gunderman. He is a concerned citizen and media tracker, professor, and he has a very interesting subject for you, which is a macro one which I enjoy. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Paul Gunderman.

Paul Gunderman: Thank you. Good evening. Frank, thank you very much for doing this, for setting this up. Lori, thank you. Thisis great. I got a couple questions to ask you first. Do you think your government is too big, too small, or just right? (answers from the audience: “too big” and “too small”) OK. Would you give up your favorite federal programs if it meant that you’d never have to pay income tax again? (someone replies “yes”)

What’s your favorite program? How would you use it—if you make $40,000 a year, and I don’t know if this is you or not—how would you use a $10,000 raise in take-home pay? Would you put your children in private schools? Would you start a business? Would you buy a better home? Would you support your favorite church, a charity, or a cause? Go back to 2002. A Massachusetts initiative to repeal the state income tax got no help from the state’s media. No major newspaper reported on the campaign. Every politician who acknowledged the initiative’s existence came out against it. Every newspaper that took a stand opposed it. Every public figure and organization that deigned to mention it came out against it. Still, the initiative won 45 percent of the vote—without any lengthy arguments in favor of it.

Think of where you live. Our government spending has more than doubled in just over 10 years. Are our children getting double the education? Are our streets twice as well paved as maintained? Are our airports twice as safe as they used to be? Businesses regularly downsize; we’ve seen it here. So can our government. Businesses remove the waste. They get rid of departments and divisions that keep failing. It keeps them healthy and competitive. We must downsize government; we must get rid of the big government programs that do not work. Remove the big government programs that make things worse, create new problems, squander and waste and divert money and energy from positive and productive uses. We must downsize our government.

Congressman Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland had the following to say about the Internal Revenue Service and the personal income tax: “Our country has labored under a federal income tax system that is inconsistent with the liberty of a free people. Quite simply, the government of a free people should not tax the labor of its citizens, and it is imperative that the federal tax system not be repugnant and contrary to the Constitution and its laws. Don’t take my word on this. Read it for yourself in the Grace Commission report, which was commissioned by President Reagan and published in 1984. The following is one paragraph from that report:

‘With two-thirds of everyone’s personal income taxes wasted or not collected, 100 percent of what is collected is absorbed solely by interest on the federal debt and by federal government contributions to transfer payments. In other words, all individual income tax revenues are gone before one nickel is spent on services which taxpayers expect from their government. Most of the money collected by the federal government from personal income taxes goes to pay the interest expense on the multi-trillion-dollar debt that these same government officials have placed on the backs of we, the American people.’”

In opposition, you say to me, if you give someone back $10,000, they can’t build a road. They can’t build a school. $10,000 is not enough money to educate your child or send your parent to a nursing home, to make sure we build good roads and bridges. All these things are supported by our government. That’s not reason talking. That’s emotion. Claiming that there would be no schools if the government didn’t build them is as silly as claiming that there would be no homes or churches if the government didn’t build them. We don’t depend on the government for the food we eat, the cars we drive, or the clothes we wear. We would laugh at anyone who claimed that we owe the state to provide us with access to the Internet, consumer credit, daily newspapers or dental hygiene. It is equally laughable to claim that the state is indispensable to nursing home care for the elderly or education for our young.

Rep. Ron Paul, Republican of Texas, and House Speaker Tom DeLay have backed the Fair Tax Bill, House Resolution No. 25. The result of this legislation would be: Individuals would not file income taxes; tax accountants now needed for the 4,000-plus-page Tax Code would not be needed, no taxes on wages, savings or investments. As a consumption tax, the amount you pay is the taxes which depend upon your lifestyle. The more you spend, the more you pay, and vice versa. Foreign companies would be forced to compete on equal terms with American companies for the first time in 80 years. Under the current code, our exports bear an unfair burden with no adjustment to account for the tax advantage of imports. Result: more honest management, less reliance on tax shelters. Thank you.

Frank Schier: Mr. Paul Gunderman. Thank you very much, sir. And now, our last scheduled speaker will be Mr. Hans Rupert. He is the owner of the Bliss Building here and also the Ether 8 Network. Ladies and gentlemen, long-time downtown resident, Mr. Hans Rupert.

Hans Rupert: Will you forgive me if I’m not a very good public speaker. This is the first time I’ve spoken to an audience. Those are some hard acts to follow.

I think it’s remarkable that we find ourselves here in Memorial Hall, the first veterans hall built in the United States, and it’s still standing, that Rockford hasn’t torn it down. I also think it’s remarkable that a 20-year-old gentleman can come up here and refresh and rekindle the kind of thing I felt when I was his age. My life’s half over, and I think to myself, in one generation, this community has managed to do wonderful things like restore Memorial Hall, invest $18 million on the gem of the Coronado Theatre, keep the MetroCentre alive despite everybody’s suspicions, and yet, never seems to have a cohesive vision or a willingness to commit to a plan, as Dave has found out, and follow through on it.

I really wanted to come here and speak about Ether 8 and beat my own drum a little bit, and be excited about what I’m involved in, and I thought that would be extremely self-centered, self-absorbed, and unfortunately,not serve the community. I think that the community will be best served if we all make sure that our own visions are really well established with what we all want to see accomplished. What do I mean by that?

Thirty-five years ago, my dad was a beat cop in downtown Rockford. Thirty-five years ago, we had a courthouse that was a Gothic revival that took up one city square block. Thirty-five years ago, the building that I own now was heated by steam heat provided by the City of Rockford. It was an incentive to downtown businesses to be here, to commit here, to stay in downtown Rockford. Thirty-five years ago, the powers that be, be they political or perhaps just businesses, sent the developers of CherryVale Mall packing. They told them to get out of downtown, don’t invest in downtown, so they went to Cherry Valley. And now we can see where a lot of center of development is. They said it would chill downtown business. Yet in 1965, 35—well, 38 years ago, Rockford was declared to be the brightest, most vibrant downtown in America. You’ll see it in the Historic Reading Room. There’s a postcard. Six lanes of traffic went from South Main Street as far as the eye could see past what is now the Museum Center. Every single business in that postcard is gone. Every single one.

So—their arguments: tear down the mall; keep the mall; and yet, we’ve seen it all come full circle, and nothing cohesive has actually been accomplished. I think we’ve slowly let things be eroded. We’ve slowly given away the gems and jewels that we can call our own. And the political leaders in this town and the business leaders in this town have been delighted with us being self-absorbed. Can anybody tell me what the Council of 100 does? Can anybody tell me what the River District does? I was a member of the River District 12 years ago, and that comes as a surprise to some people. And yet, I had exactly two contacts with the River District—the phone call asking me to join and pay my dues, and another phone call a year later asking me to renew. And what I saw happen is, we got a really neat sign and a logo. That’s beautiful. But I don’t know what’s happened since.

I still can’t tell you what the RCAC does or if it even exists any more; I can’t tell you what the city council does or why they’re not here tonight. And I’d like to see us put all the wood that we have behind wire, give up my interests, my wife’s interests, Dan and Michelle’s interests at Octane, and rally behind something that has got a cohesive vision, a lot of energy, and would benefit all of us downtown. To be honest, the only one person that I see doing this, time and again, also for the last 12 years, is Frank Schier. He hasn’t changed his tune at all. I saw him take over a newspaper that was based on the northwest side of Rockford, move it downtown, commit to his plan, and follow through on it. I actually tried to convince Frank to do a Web site about five-seven years ago. I actually told him, it would be wonderful if everybody could get The Rock River Times on the Web. And you know what? He’s got a Web site. But more interestingly is he’s got a paper of circulation just like he planned. So there is one opportunity. Another opportunity is to see this gentleman say he wants to come back and live in downtown Rockford. He wants to work here. That’s exciting. That’s invigorating. And we don’t have that. We’ve lost that.

The one sitting behind him is Michelle Gearhard Minick, also has a degree in city planning and development. Very few people know that. Very few people have used that. And yet she came back here, and she and her husband have committed to this town. We need more people to commit to it. I only have about 30 seconds to wrap this up, but Mr. Gunderman fired up some emotions in me that I’d like to divorce myself from. I own a building with my wife that I would like to see developed, and I would like to make it happen. And the only thing that’s happened in the three years that I’ve owned it is I’ve got broken windows, when I bought it, had none. I’ve had air conditioners stolen out of the alley, had to replace them to keep tenants. I’ve had a city tell me that the frozen water pipes underneath their sidewalk are my fault and my problem. And that’s what my tax dollars got me. If you double my tax dollar, my units can stay downtown, and the projects like mine could get funded. Then I’d have one incentive to stay. So if anybody would like to talk about afterwards, what we could do to put all of our weight behind just one area and go to where we could go with this city, I’d like to hear it. Thank you.

Frank Schier: For someone who’s not a very good public speaker, I think he didn’t do too bad. Ladies and gentlemen, first of all, I would like to say that this is not a River District event. As you may know, I am a past board member of the River District, and the chairman of the marketing committee. Mr. Bill Beard, I believe is currentlly a River District board member. Larry Morrissey is the past president of the River District. So I want to make sure, I think, that there’s a donation that needs to be made, and that is very much about Hans and what many people have spoken about tonight.

Hans, thank you for your comment. That is, there’s been this stigma upon what we’ve known as downtown. Originally, there was River East and nothing on the west side in the way of an organization. Myself, Michelle, Larry Morrissey, Karen Howard from Charlotte’s Web, another outstanding institution here, I think Bill was in on some of these discussions as well. Originally, we started talking about having a west-side organization that could be River West. And River East heard about this—Clark Galloway was the president then, I think the finest president that the River District has ever had—said, “Come over to our board meeting. Let’s see what we can do here.” And sure enough, in a small board of about eight people at that time, we made the River District. Then as the Morrissey campaign came about, and the board members, a quarterly group, we had more ex officio members, but I pushed again and also another long-standing downtown person, longer probably than any of us, you’re talking about—well, businesses that are still cooking—the Lafayette Hotel is still cooking. Mr. LeRoy Jones started as a desk clerk there, and he bought one share of stock at a time until he owned it. He has been there for 30 years.

That’s downtown commitment. And I think that kind of commitment and ingenuity and perserverance is exactly what you are talking about that we need. And that’s where we should go. We should not become like the RCAC did—essentially a board that just had meetings. And it was a social status. You know, there’s an old saying that if you want an organization to go nowhere, what you do is first of all, pack the board with do-nothing members. Or pack the board with individuals who tell you what’s going on so you can make the money first; or so you can obfuscate what the board is really trying to do. I’ve seen this as the case in the River District—perhaps, perhaps not. Draw your own conclusions.

However, it is a point to consider. Small groups work the best. And echoing Mr. Gunderman’s point—that small works better, and it does. And that’s why I am very proud to be here tonight standing before about 25 people who, by the way, were all very well spoken. Were they not very well spoken? (Applause) And I must say, also, not only well spoken, but also what we see so little of in our society today, which was reflected at Rockford College the other day—civility. They were civil, they were on time, and the audience was the same. That’s what we need in our society, we were listening. And too often, in the matter of taxes, in the matter of city response, we have not been listened to.

Just to go over a few points quickly, if I may—Larry made the point that there’s been all these studies. Have we listened to these studies? No. We have not. They’ve been a waste of our time, our money, and usually are the product of out-of-town consultants. Here we have a consultant—an excellent consultant—who should be paid, and when we do spend our tax money, it stays in our community; it does not go out of town to out-of-town developers or out-of-town consultants. (Applause) It should stay in our town.

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