Editorial: River District falls down

Former River District Executive Director Kim Wheeler-Johnsen (left) accepts a $10,000 sponsorship check from First Northern Credit Union's Melissa Miller, who is also an independent Realtor. File photo

By Frank Schier
Editor & Publisher

Late Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 31, Bill Morrissey of Morrissey Law Offices called to tell us Kim Wheeler-Johnsen, executive director of the River District, and her assistant, Diane Lyon, had been terminated by the Board of Directors’ President Emily Hartzog and Vice President Mike Davidson.

Wheeler-Johnsen and Davidson could not be reached to go on the record. Hartzog, after a call back to Morrissey and some strong language, went on the record.

Before addressing Hartzog’s comments, a little history needs to be explained because I have several strong biases as I write this editorial.

Once upon an ill-spent, public dime, the Rockford Central Area Commission (RCAC) was supported by a special service area (SSA) tax, or higher property tax, to make things better on both sides of the river downtown. Besides paying for an executive director and some more out-of-town consultants, many of us wondered just exactly what we were getting for our taxes. We decided, “Not much,” and took the tax down by the required number of property owners.

Much like the sparsely-supported west-side-oriented Midtown Association, RCAC faded into history.

River East, on the other hand, developed out of an older organization and has some life. Clark Galloway was its president, and it had new, younger board members like Chandler Anderson of Icon Development and Larry Morrissey, who would become the first president of the River District in 1998. Oddly, I was asked to join that board.

At this time, I had asked several folks to several meetings at Octane to discuss forming a River West to represent us as well as River East did for their businesses. Those in those first few meetings were: Dan and Michelle Minick from Fuzz and Octane Interlounge, Karen Howard from Charlotte’s Web, Joyce Serrano from Serrano’s Mexican Kitchen, Tom Giamalva from Palace Shoes, LeRoy and Lisa Jones from Hotel Lafayette, Doc Slafkosky and Jerry Kortman from J.R. Kortman and probably some other good folks who have escaped from the loose security of my memory.

Galloway suggested we just make an association for both sides of the river. Everyone agreed. Morrissey came up with the name River District, and in 1998, the organization was born. I’ve always wondered if I made a mistake by agreeing to have one instead of two separate organizations. Bigger versus quality?

As a member of the new board for the River District and chairman of the marketing committee, I was very interested in the concept of a full-time executive director, and I strongly recommended Kim Wheeler-Johnsen, who was in charge of the Clock Tower Theater’s office and marketing. In November 1999, she won the selection process, despite the competition of some other very successful people. Yes, folks, she’s worked for the River District for more than 10 years. I, and many others, were very happy, too, when Diane Lyon was hired as her assistant.

When I consider all the above and all the advertising/money and time I have donated, I must declare, I have some real biases to vent in this editorial. They are so declared. I do so for all those other founding members, all the board members since and all the existing membership. Why the hell weren’t we informed of Wheeler-Johnsen and Lyon’s dismissal? This is a supposed membership organization. Many of us would help.

Former River District Board member (2002-2006) and co-owner of MedicineMan, who just produced the successful Block 5 Festival, Sandi Kohn said when asked if the River District could operate without an executive director, “Absolutely not.

“Besides, I don’t think it was necessary to have someone who has served us for so many years given only a two-hour notice.

“I don’t know how the River District Board expects to take over the overwhelming task of running that organization. That’s why we hired an assistant for the executive director because the job was too much for just one person. Now, they laid off the whole staff? They just effectively shut down operations. Someone doesn’t understand,” concluded Kohn.

Hartzog says she understands, but the board had no choice and “the entity is still in existence.”

She said for the River District to continue to exist beyond any cash flow crisis of the next two weeks, the permanent revenue expectations must be responsible. She doesn’t see how the position can be funded in the future. If so, we need a new board president.

Hartzog stressed she and the board had “pursued every opportunity…” but cash on hand only allows for a final payroll and the payment of state and federal payroll taxes.

She said the problem was focused in the shortfall created by not receiving $20,000 from recaptured loan funds of the state’s Community Services Block Grant program. The city said the grant was not a problem when they only gave $20,000 instead of its usual yearly $40,000 to support the district, with the grant to replace those funds. Hartzog said she really didn’t know if the grant was funded or not; and from what she had heard, downstate was not so inclined for technical considerations. All she knew was that the money wasn’t there.

Hartzog said the River District will continue to exist, and “we are committed to our mission statement.” So, why fold up the operating shop and give up on your staff?

Admitting he, too, had received very late notice about Wheeler-Johnsen and Lyon’s dismissal, Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) said: “We’ve been granted this as part of a pool of funds. This is local money. We have to ask the state why  we have someone philosophizing about if this is a square peg for a round hole.”

Morrissey went on to say Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (RACVB) receives $1.5 million in city revenue and does a great job of marketing the region, but it should also consider its direct investment in Rockford and ask other communities to ante up.

“I see 99 percent for RACVB funding coming from Rockford. Loves Park has Sportscore II and Volcano Falls; I’d love to see them make a substantial contribution to RACVB. Besides the River District, we have other associations like Midtown and the Miracle Mile that deserve support.

“The River District is vital. They have 20 grand coming. The city has committed to that, and one way or another, it’s coming,” promised Morrissey, wincing at the difficulty of prying money out of the state.

The federal government was very generous to the River District this year. U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo (R-16) brought home a $100,000 earmark to the River District only to develop and recruit small businesses. By the way, did anyone call him about this cash crisis? Now who is going to run that program? Will someone’s pocket get lined here?

Wheeler-Johnsen could raise money, too. She landed an additional $10,000 sponsorship from First Northern Credit Union. Did they get a call?

If the state grant funds were expected about two weeks after the end of May, and they didn’t arrive, where was the fiduciary responsibility of the board and its officers of raising the big red flag right then? Then, came the end of June and July, and now at the end of August, a poor, poor decision is made. Time was wasted, and no alarm raised. No widespread appeal for urgent help with a survival cry was made.

The River District needs a change in leadership. Emily Hartzog should resign. Others on the board should consider the same, unless they have brought in major sponsorship this year. That’s the first job a of board member—bring your checkbook—then bring your friends’ checkbook. The $20,000 shortfall divided by the 17-member board is $1,176.47 each. Jeesh. You people know people!

Do you know your members? The website says 550 members are in the association. The $20,000 shortfall divided by 550 members is only $36.37 each. Ask for it now.

Boards and their officers just don’t give up! Why fire your vital community link of 20 years? Do you want to make life more difficult and threaten the existence and credibility of the association? Kim Wheeler-Johnsen and Diane Lyon deserve their jobs back with apologies. How the respect and trust of the River District membership will be regained is another matter. Very poor form, very poor communication.

Rockford, and the surrounding area that values the River District, we need to help the River District. Now. Call (815) 964-6221. Leave a message. If they don’t call you back, call us, (815) 964-9767.

From the Sept. 1-7, 2010 issue

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