By Michael Kleen
In March, The Rock River Times published an article outlining how financial contributors to Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey’s (I) political campaign stand to benefit from plans to turn the city-owned Ingersoll building into a multi-million dollar, publicly-owned sports complex. The Ingersoll building, along the riverfront at 301-401 S. Madison St. in Rockford, sits just inside the boundary of what NeighborhoodScout.com has called the 14th most dangerous neighborhood in the United States.
Public funding and control over downtown projects has flourished under the Morrissey administration. In 2010, Morrissey oversaw the creation of the Rockford Area Venues and Entertainment (RAVE) Authority to run the city’s increasing portfolio of downtown entertainment assets. That same year, a public/private partnership called Rock River Development Partnership (RRDP) created an outdoor city market on the east bank of the river between State and Jefferson streets. RRDP was co-founded by Morrissey and Peter Provenzano, president of SupplyCore and the registered agent for Madison Street Properties, LLC.
Madison Street Properties, LLC, owns a substantial amount of property around the Ingersoll building. Danny Lorden, president of Progressive Development, LLC, and co-manager of Madison Street Properties, is a former board member of RRDP. In 2010, Progressive Development purchased the Salvation Army’s Millennium Center on Madison Street at nearly half its listed value. The Millennium Center is in eyeshot of the Ingersoll building.
Now, proposals are on the table to use public funding to build everything from an indoor city market, to a whitewater rafting course, a riverwalk along the Ingersoll building, and riverfront City University campus. These developments will greatly increase nearby property values.
While important, the fact that businessmen hope to profit from their political connections is not particularly new. The close relationship between politics and business is as old as organized human society itself. What are the implications for representative democracy and a free society, however, when a local media outlet lets its own interests get in the way of critical reporting on these relationships?
Smack dab in the middle of all this public/private development in downtown Rockford is the home of Rockford’s daily newspaper, the Register Star, located at 99 E. State St. The newspaper’s staff has been in a unique position to watch these development plans unfold over the past six to seven years. Both the proposed indoor sports complex and indoor city market are a stone’s throw away.
From a business standpoint, promoting the developments within view of 99 E. State St. makes sense. One of the Register Star’s most valuable assets (besides its actual newspaper) is its real estate. Alongside plummeting readership, however, property values have declined at an alarming rate. In 2007, the total assessed value of the three parcels that make up the Register Star property was $1,065,350. In 2012, it was $734,740. That is a 31 percent decrease.
The Rockford Register Star was sold by Gannett Co., Inc., to GateHouse Media, Inc., in April 2007 as part of a $410 million deal that included three other Gannett-owned newspapers. According to The Wall Street Journal, GateHouse is facing more than $1 billion in debt and trying desperately to avoid bankruptcy.
A revitalized riverfront around the Register Star building would raise its property value (or at least stop the decline) and make it much more attractive to potential buyers down the road. It would only make sense, from a business perspective, for GateHouse to use its media platform to support politicians who advocate downtown development, while influencing public opinion in favor of those plans.
And that is exactly what we have seen. The Register Star’s editorial line has consistently been to cheerlead publicly-funded riverfront development projects. Articles about the proposed Ingersoll sports complex, for example, read like PR statements from the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. In a political system that depends on an educated and informed populace, however, the media have a more important job than to simply print official press releases without question or analysis.
A saying often wrongfully attributed to George Orwell goes, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want published; everything else is public relations.” It is the job of the news media to act as a check and a restraint on the powerful, to illuminate the dark corners of government, to debunk erroneous conventional wisdom, and to throw often unwelcome light on the motives of politicians and their agents.
I applaud the Register Star’s effort to advocate for a better Rockford, but when the newspaper stands to benefit from public/private partnerships and development, it should take care to maintain a more critical and objective view.
Michael Kleen is a local author, historian and owner of Black Oak Media. He holds a master’s degree in history and a master’s degree in education. He was the Republican candidate for Rockford mayor in the 2013 election. Read his previous columns online at makleen.com.
From the May 15-21, 2013, issue