Guest Column: City’s abuse of On the Waterfront must come to an end

By Angela Link

I have volunteered for On the Waterfront (OTW) for almost 10 years. I do this for several reasons, but mostly to help bring together this community that I live in, and help in raising money for local nonprofit groups like high school cheerleaders and various church organizations.

Volunteering for OTW is more than just a four-day gig; it takes literally months of my time to do my OTW job. I work for OTW because I believe in their mission, and I am determined to help them achieve it.

The people I work with are as dedicated as I am, even more so. We are a team, a family of sorts, and we all come together to put on Illinois’ largest street festival. But before the festival even takes place, there are hundreds of volunteers working toward making OTW’s Labor Day weekend festival the best it can be. We build things, we carry things, and we paint and sew. We design, we test, and we create new events. Just before the festival each year, we clean everything you see at the festival, in extreme heat, with no air conditioning, in a dilapidated and unhealthy environment in the building you all know as Ingersoll.

The City of Rockford did OTW no favor when the best they could offer was Ingersoll for storage, but OTW accepted it gladly and with a smile. And yes, more than $80,000 has been paid to the city in rent, which is significantly more than the city deserves for use of the disgusting quality of building they are now so intent on very publicly kicking OTW out of. Maybe at the new storage location, our volunteers who have allergies can actually go into it — they could not go into Ingersoll. I personally cannot wait to move OTW out of the building and put the bad memory of the mold, mildew, sewage and flooding smells away forever.

It has been excruciatingly painful for me to watch the great city of Rockford withdraw its support from OTW, ever so quietly, over the past several years. Each year is another attempt to take OTW to its knees, either by hiding behind RAVE, withdrawing security or stalling permits.

Do you know how exhausting it is, as a volunteer, to continually feel that no matter how hard I work, how many dinners I miss with my children, how much time I take off work to volunteer, that city leaders will continue to disrespect this award-winning festival? They ought to be ashamed of themselves for their contemptuous remarks and their utter lack of respect for the thousands of volunteers who give a whole lot of their time and energy to help produce OTW, most of them their voting constituents.

I feel city leaders are trying to steal away a child born of a desire to help others, but what they do not realize is that OTW has a huge family that will stand up to the city’s tyrannical behavior.

OTW is, first and foremost, a fund-raiser for nonprofits that need help. I wonder if, since the City of Rockford doesn’t financially support OTW, Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) would be willing to give more than $10.1 million to not-for-profit groups. I don’t think so, though, but don’t you think these groups will go to the city for assistance? Of course they will, and they should.

OTW lightened the financial burden for the city of Rockford in many ways while promoting tourism, community engagement and celebration of the Labor Day holiday. The city has been bleeding dry the most viable, multi-generational community organization it has.

Think of what could be accomplished together, OTW and the city, working toward a common goal. As an example, it was OTW that took the Rockford City Market idea from concept to fruition, producing and staffing the event (until this year) for the last several years and focusing the idea — allowing it to grow and become what it is today — a sustainable community activity that brings people together. But first, the leaders of this city must leverage the bull-pit of the mayor’s office.

I don’t volunteer for OTW to see bands — that’s just a side note. I volunteer for OTW because of the couple I met who had been waiting for almost 40 years to see Creedence Clearwater Revisited, and to see the hundreds of families enjoying our great Davis Park and cityscape with smiles on their faces. I have been involved with the greatest people I have ever met, laughed a lot, cried a few times, made memories to last a lifetime, and stayed awake for days. All for you, our patrons.

Neither Mayor Morrissey nor RAVE will ever take that from me.

Volunteering is a fulfilling and rewarding experience for the hundreds upon hundreds of us who help OTW, and it is a viable strategy that the City of Rockford absolutely refuses to take advantage of.

There is grant money out there to support volunteerism to help those in need. Look at “Cities of Service,” which recently gave $1 million to 18 cities whose mayors applied for a grant. Of course, first, you’d have to have a mayor who supported volunteerism and OTW’s mission of community enhancement through celebration, which Morrissey does not.

From their press release: “October 17, 2012, New York, N.Y. — Cities of Service today announced the first round of Impact Volunteering Fund grants to 18 U.S. cities, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Grants from the Cities of Service Impact Volunteering Fund will support mayors who are harnessing the power of volunteers to address priority problems in their communities. Grants ranging from $25,000 to $100,000 will support efforts in Atlanta, Ga.; Austin, Texas; Baltimore, Md.; Birmingham, Ala.; Duluth, Minn.; Fall River, Mass.; Flint, Mich.; Indianapolis, Ind.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Little Rock, Ark.; Nashville, Tenn.; Orlando, Fla.; Philadelphia, Pa.; Phoenix, Ariz.; Pierre, S.D.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Providence, R.I.; and Richmond, Calif.”

The mayors of these cities see the broad scope of what can be accomplished by working side-by-side with volunteer organizations like OTW to rebuild, refresh, renew their community spirit, sense of community pride, and ultimately getting the job done. I guarantee you OTW gets the job done. What a powerful tool that this great city refuses to engage with.

My fellow volunteers and I take the initiative and work tirelessly to help achieve success of not only OTW, but Groove Walk, the City Market, and other various fund-raising events like Help for Haiti after the earthquake a couple of years ago.

We will never know how much we could do for this great city, how many projects we could complete, how many organizations we could support, because the city declines to ask. In fact, they want to completely remove thousands of volunteers from their voting and support system. I know I’m not alone in feeling that enough is enough already.

We, the people, must speak out. I urge all of you to call your alderman, your mayor, your senator, your representative. The abuse of On the Waterfront by the city of Rockford must stop.

In the name of volunteerism!

Angela Link is a Rockford resident and longtime volunteer for the On the Waterfront festival.

From the Nov. 7-13, 2012, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!