Editorial: Rockford Transformers and thankfulness

By Frank Schier
Editor & Publisher

To the new group, Transform Rockford, I’m going to repeat myself, tourism, tourism, tourism, waterfront, waterfront, waterfront, friendly, friendly and friendly.

Dixon gets it; Beloit gets it; Fort Atkinson and Watertown get it — these Rock River communities are thriving with quaint, diverse downtowns and continued creativity.

In these cities, visitors, business people and citizens are not confronted with aggressive panhandlers, wandering parolees, homeless people sleeping on downtown benches and in their waterfront parks, nor are they confronted by the street screaming of the mentally ill, who have gone off their meds. These cities do not have an over-concentration of Social Service Industrial Corporations or a Criminal Justice Industrial Complex impeding development downtown because of the over-densification of this clout-heavy, well-salaried, politically-correct bureaucracy (if you criticize us, you are “Evil,” as Rosecrance’s PR Director and “FORMER” journalist Judy Emerson called me).

If Rockford wants to “Transform” itself, we don’t have to travel far to see some good examples, and we don’t need a huge committee that promises results in 20 years. I’ve owned this newspaper for 21 years, and I’m sick of study after study and committee after committee.

One thing I will say for the CEO of Woodward Governor Tom Gendron, the founder of Transform Rockford, Rockford citizens comprise the committee and not hired outside consultants. Nice change. For more, go to transformrockford.org.

While Transform Rockford has some bright, young professionals and the usual established power structure, they are lacking those who really know Rockford on the retail/street level as small business owners/hometown success stories. I didn’t see them on stage at the Coronado for the premiere of Transform Rockford. I would like to offer some thankful suggestions.

With the scars to prove it, the following people are survivors and real visionaries, and I suggest getting their deep input –– they get things done, every day, NOW — LeRoy and Lisa Jones, owners of the Lafayette Hotel; Doc Slafkosky and Jerry Kortman, owners of JR Kortman’s; Chris Wachowiak, owner of Kryptonite Bar; Dan and Michelle Minick, owners of Octane InterLounge; Sandi Kohn, owner of Medicine Man and Bliss, the latter with Ald. Karen Elyea; Mike Leifheit, owner of the Irish Rose; Paul and Karen Sletten, owner of Abreo and Social restaurants (and Paul’s dad, Jerry); Dan Ford and Mike Wright, owners of The Office; Don Bissell, Marge and Kyle Bevers, owners of the Richardson Building and founders of Friends of Ziock; Don Carlyle, owner of Carlyle Brewing; Bill Zang, owner of Universal Hovercraft; Justin Fern, owner of Urban Equity Properties; Steve Lucas, owner of Rock River Enterprises; Jim and Dick Revers, owners of Rever’s Marina; Nick Efthimiou, owner of Uncle Nick’s; Paul N. Mangiaracina, owner of the Rue Marche; Curly Thompson, longtime manager of Symbols; Jim Columbi, owner of CJ’s Lounge; Vito Grisanzio, owner of Capri Restaurant; Gary Anderson, architect; Lloyd and Diane Koch, owners of Prairie Street Brewery Building and Bourn and Koch, Inc.; Frank Calvanese, owner of Deli Italia; Allen Murphy, owner of the old Quaker Oats Building and the Cedar and Church buildings; Curt and Jennifer Scribner, owners of Rockford Office Supply; Ron Dierks, former owner of Dierks Foods; Mike Dupree and Betty Geisen, owners of Der Rathskeller; Kerry Knodle, president of YouthBuild; and Becky Haddad, owner of Mary’s Place, the oldest tavern in Rockford.

One might notice property owners, developers, real stakeholders and restaurant owners in the list above — get out of the Coronado Theatre and your admirable $300 million investment on North Second Street and go have an adult beverage with all of these folks. They know the waterfront. They know downtown, the core of our city and the neighborhoods that surround our center.

They will probably agree that to transform Rockford, you should stop all federal housing vouchers from Chicago and Milwaukee to Rockford Housing Authority. We’ve had our fill of many, many Cabrini Green residents when that was torn down. Then-RHA Director Lewis Jordan never did respond to our FOIA as to how many came to Rockford from the Chicago projects, but he was subsequently hired as the director of the Chicago Housing Authority, only to depart under a credit card scandal.

We need to phase out of the good ol’ boy federal system, refuse each and every voucher, and move residents into scattered housing sites that are now vacant and in danger of being torn down. Look at all the boarded-up and vacant lots we have in this town. Organizations like Habitat For Humanity and YouthBuild can help with construction and gangs.
If you don’t think our gang problem (largely hidden from you) is a result of housing vouchers and parolees from Chicago, you are a fool. That’s a “Brutal Fact.”

I’ve been told we have an “average number” of parolees as compared to other cities of our size. That’s too many. We’ve been the dumping ground for years and years of parolees that should go back to their hometowns, not show up in Rockford at the Rockford Rescue Mission because that’s an address for release, which is a requirement for parolees.

Rockford Rescue Mission should stop accepting out-of-town parolees and homeless populations. I’m all for taking care of our own challenged population, including the mentally ill. They are our neighbors, and many times we know their families. We must take care of our own, and a FEW strangers, one might be Jesus, as the lesson goes.

But we have become a nationwide destination for some of these folks; these “visitors” and parolees HAVE ALREADY TRANSFORMED ROCKFORD! These “visitors” have told me on the street that Rockford is well known for its social services, and they have come from down South, Arizona, and even California. Enough. Sometimes loving charity snowballs into TOXIC CHARITY for the community. Read Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) by Robert D. Lupton.

Institutions and individuals who give to the Rockford Rescue Mission should ask where their population comes from, and how soon they may return, and does the Mission then receive more funds for them? What is the success rate for the Rockford Rescue Mission? Does it plan on opening a Women’s Center for even more homeless? These are Brutal Questions that need widely known facts for us all to address. We must put a cap on our homeless population — A BRUTAL FACT.

Many of us downtown can tell you we see a new population of homeless people every two weeks. Their demands on Rockford Township funds are constant. We see them rotating in and out of the Tuite Building on Church Street, which is also a parole center. In the morning, after breakfast, a migration occurs down Mulberry Street from the Mission to the Rockford Public Library and areas beyond, which returns in the evening.

Speaking of migration, during the disaster of the Rockford school desegregation lawsuit, we had “White Flight” to the magic donut of development around Rockford: Roscoe, Rockton, Durand, Lake Summerset, Pecatonica, Winnebago, Cherry Valley, and part of Machesney and Loves parks. At that time, many people would not go west of Alpine Road; now, many won’t go west of Mulford Road. It’s not a disaster of a school system they’re avoiding, they’re avoiding crime in their minds. Odd, because downtown Rockford with all of its challenges has less crime than the CherryVale Mall area on many days. Yet, it’s the PERCEPTION IS REALITY problem.

A reality is our huge Winnebago County Jail. Around 4,000 city and county jails exist in this country, and 40 of them are known as “Max” jails. Our Rockford, downtown jail is one of those “Max” jails. Not a great perception, but the reality is the jail supports a vast array of vendors, jailers, police officers, lawyers and judges. It’s a Criminal Justice Industrial Complex, just as this paper warned you it would become when it was built. We have built it; they have come.

Now, we have come to the Transform Rockford effort, and I applaud that effort and spirit. Admirably, Rockford’s “Brain Drain,” was mentioned–youth leaving Rockford for areas with better jobs, opportunities, and quality of life. Some, it was noted, return. I am one of those “returnees.”

My life experience in Washington, D.C., Boulder and Telluride, Colo., and Seattle let me know what a beautiful city can be, and that we ARE a beautiful city, with a beautiful river running right down our center. As founder of the national water trail and the two-state road route of the Rock River Trail, I am trying to bring tourism, new jobs and development to Rockford.

Other like-minded groups (some mentioned in my list) have amassed more than $400 million in development projects for the downtown in the next year. We are transforming Rockford, and we don’t need a stage to do it. We always have transformed Rockford.

This Thanksgiving, I am so thankful for our longtime transformers (many good friends), for the new transformers and for my freedom of speech. Like the new transformers, this paper has presented “brutal facts” to our readers in the spirit of improving our community for 21 years. My great staff, friends, critics and enemies have made this possible. I thank you all with the best tough love I have, and may we all transform into our best possible selves and community.

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at The Rock River Times. We are the “Voice of the Community,” and we thankfully look forward to hearing from you.

From the Nov. 27-Dec. 3, 2013, issue

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