$1M grant ‘hopefully’ just the start of $31M Keith Creek project

Gov. Pat Quinn. Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin

By Stuart R. Wahlin
Staff Writer

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) was in Rockford April 9 not only to take part in a Democratic fund-raiser, but also to dole out $1,004,750 in support of a Keith Creek flood mitigation project. All told, Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) said, the larger project envisioned by city leaders could top $31 million.

“Flooding has been a recurring problem, not always as bad as we had in ’06 and ’07, but nevertheless a significant problem,” Morrissey noted, referring to a pre-World War II mitigation plan that never caught on. “This was a program that got suspended for a long time once World War II hit, and other priorities came into being.”

Once vacant homes are removed under the new program, city leaders plan to utilize the resulting wetland green space for a recreational path and to help absorb excess water, thereby offering a layer of protection to remaining property owners in the area. Plans to widen the creek channel are also under way.

After back-to-back 100-year floods in less than a year in 2006 and 2007, aldermen approved an agreement with the nonprofit Rockford Local Development Corporation to use a $10 million line of credit to purchase flooded homes along the Keith Creek floodplain.

Meantime, the note with Associated Bank comes due this year, but aldermen have been hesitant to issue bonds backed by the 1-percentage-point sales tax increase approved by referendum in 2007, which has a five-year sunset clause unless renewed by voters.

“We still owe the money, and that’s part of the reason why we had some sense of urgency that our note was coming due, and we didn’t have an extra $10 million sitting around,” Morrissey noted.

City officials have kept their fingers crossed that state or federal dollars would pick up the tab, and the April 9 check presentation by Quinn at the Stockholm Inn appears to have restored some hope.

Quinn’s announcement came on the heels of a visit by Morrissey to the governor’s mansion two weeks prior.

“The first thing he said when I sat down with him is that he knew Rockford’s hurting,” the mayor reported. “So what we see demonstrated by the governor’s announcement today is moving forward on the next phase of the Keith Creek plan—the ultimate plan that we know we can do, and need to do, that can bring about jobs, immediate construction jobs, but really help to stabilize the neighborhood that can be supported by the more modern techniques that help us to deal with drainage issues, floodplain management—the types of green jobs that will connect our riverfront into our community.”

Quinn explained the $1,004,750 from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO)—which is essentially administering federal Community Development Block Grant dollars—will be matched by a $3 million federal hazard mitigation grant, administered by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA), for the relief project.

“We have $4 million to really begin a mitigation project that’s gonna help not only today, but for years to come,” Quinn said. “We have to understand that we have water in Illinois. We’re lucky to have water. Many states would die for the amount of water we have, but we have to respect the water. We’ve had flooding in our state over the years, and we have to understand that that may happen again. There’s no sense in having houses and other properties right in the middle of a flood plain that’s susceptible to serious flooding, and then damage from the flooding. Then, after the flood waters recede, there are, perhaps, some social problems that develop with homes that aren’t occupied, so we want to address this.”

For weeks, Keith Creek Neighborhood Association President Mike Brackett has lobbied aldermen to move ahead with demolition of vacant homes in the neighborhood, arguing the boarded-up structures are fostering criminal activity and “slumlords” in the area.

“We believe in neighborhoods,” Quinn added. “Our state is built on neighborhoods and families who live in neighborhoods, and we want to make sure those families get attention.”

Although the funds will only pave the way for removal of 36 of the 112 homes, Brackett was encouraged by this first step.

“This is what it’s all about,” he asserted. “As a neighborhood association, we are ecstatic with the first phase of the Keith Creek mitigation project officially beginning.”

Meantime, the administration expects that this next phase of the project will go out for bids within 30 days.

Morrissey said he looks forward to future cooperation with the state to “finish the job.”

Warren Ribley, DCEO director, noted Rockford is the first community to receive a grant under the $17 million Midwest Disaster Recovery Program for housing buyouts, but he anticipates the city will be in the running for future grants as well.

“We have other funding that we’ll be releasing in the next few months that address the broader issues of flood disaster recovery,” Ribley asserted. “We understand this is just the beginning.”

Ribley pledged to continue working with area leaders to “hopefully” continue the project.

Competition for additional dollars could be fierce, however, because 27 Illinois counties impacted by recent flooding are eligible for the soon-to-be-released $161 million flood recovery grant fund.

Morrissey indicated: “Out of that bucket, we would be trying to get some of those other funds that would reach us towards our ultimate goal of over 31 million. Obviously, some is better than none, and we’ll work with what we can get.”

The announcement came only four days after members of the Rockford City Council voted to apply for the grant.

Local elected officials thankful for aid

Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R) said he appreciated the governor’s visit, and applauded the local teamwork that resulted in attention from the state.

“It’s been a partnership, and for us to turn our economy around,” he asserted. “Rockford—the great community it used to be—we can be that again, but this is exactly what it’s going to take. It’s gonna take the State of Illinois, the City of Rockford, the county and any other resources that we can put together.”

Christiansen also recognized the patience of affected residents, saying, “You waited a long, long time.”

State Sen. Dave Syverson (R-34) also thanked neighbors for their patience, agreeing with Christiansen that teamwork was the key in getting the mitigation project moving.

“This is just one more example of what happens when a community puts a plan together, a long-term plan, and then works to get that fulfilled,” he said. “The aldermen have been promised a lot of things, and have gone out on a limb to work with their constituents on this, and now it’s finally happening. But this was a plan that the community put together—the city and the county and the local leaders put together a plan over a year ago, looking for these dollars. That’s what made it work, and that’s what made our capital plan work for our area, because we all came together to come up with a list of those projects that need to be done.”

Although state Rep. Dave Winters (R-68) doesn’t represent the affected district, he said he worked with other area legislators on behalf of the project.

“We know the impact on the community of the incredible flood damage,” said Winters, who farms on a floodplain. Among other crops, Winters grows prairie grass for seed.

“When the city finally gets around to making that into a green space, if they choose to make it into prairie, which is probably the best way to get infiltration into the soil, since I raise over a hundred acres of grass seed every year, I can provide you at least four species of prairie grasses,” he joked.

The infiltration, Winters said, will reduce the volume of water being fed downriver, “which is gonna help everybody all the way to New Orleans.”

Deconstruction opportunities

The $4 million in grants will allow the city to move ahead with demolition, but the mayor said eco-friendly deconstruction, which would salvage materials for recycling or reuse, would be used wherever possible.

“We need to be pushing green jobs,” he acknowledged. “We need to be global. Rockford going green, going global—this is definitely part of that mission that we’re on—taking advantage of the fact that we’ve got a real challenge, and turning this thing into something very, very positive.”

Asked by this publication to what extent deconstruction is being considered, Morrissey responded: “We, just as a general rule, have looked at deconstruction as a preferred method to try to be as green as we can. It can be a challenge at times, either because we have an emergent situation and we just don’t have the ability to take the time, and that happens. But as I look into the future, that’s a general goal that I’ve had, and I think our council has supported with a lot of our green initiatives.”

Rockford Storm Water Program Manager Brian Eber, however, told The Rock River Times: “When you have a house that—generally in this neighborhood, the age is about 99 years old—you’re gonna have some lead paint issues. There are some safety concerns about deconstruction and salvage, asbestos issues related as well.”

Eber indicated, however, that deconstruction had been a component in the demolition of four flooded homes in previous efforts.

“How that typically works is we contract with a prevailing wage contractor, demo contractor, and he would sub out the work, and pay prevailing wage to someone deconstructing that,” Eber said.

Because prevailing wage laws apply to a project of this scope, Morrissey acknowledged, “If you’re pulling nails out of a board, and you have to pay prevailing wage of what a carpenter’s gonna be making, it may be difficult to see a lot of those dollars go as far as they can.”

The mayor said, however, that opportunities are being explored for programs that would allow deconstruction at a rate lower than prevailing wage.

Meantime, representatives from YouthBuild Rockford have been in discussions with the city regarding the possibility of deconstruction for the project. However, Rockford YouthBuild’s parent organization, Comprehensive Community Solutions, Inc., is in the crosshairs of Carpenters Local 792 for paying its job trainees below prevailing wage for deconstruction work in Loves Park. The union has filed a federal lawsuit and a labor complaint against the nonprofit.

From the April 14-20, 2010 issue

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