Guest Column: Former alderman: Rail station should be on Cedar Street

By Victory Bell

Based on the dream of Gordon Geddes and his 1977-1979 vision outlined in a preliminary study conducted by Rock Valley Metropolitan Council, I truly believe the best location for the new proposed rail station in Rockford is the property on Cedar Street, directly across from the U.S. Federal Courthouse.

My comments are not intended to criticize either the station locations already considered or pending recommendations. It is my intent to share with you my reasons and provide documented information relative to the history associated with the rail yard in the City of Rockford.

First, I would like to commend the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), regional public elected officials that participated in Rockford Friday, June 20, 2014, and residents for attending the kick-off meeting. I am impressed with the collaboration displayed by our regional leadership team, including Belvidere, Huntley and Elgin.

Building the railroad station in Rockford on the southwest side is a major step forward for the entire region. Passenger rail between Rockford to Chicago will create major economic development opportunities and stimulate new business and residential growth for our region.

Between 1973 and 1975, Rockford and the nation were recovering from the recessions of the previous years. By 1977, Rockford had experienced a decline in employment by 8,575 employees. According to the Illinois State Employment Services, 3,850 fewer people were employed in 1977 than in 1976. This trend caused concerns for the City of Rockford, County of Winnebago, major industry, labor unions, Rockford Chamber of Commerce and citizens of the entire region.

Citizens residing in southwest Rockford were experiencing major problems obtaining jobs in the years of 1976, 1977 and 1978. Students attending schools on the west side were experiencing extreme high unemployment rates and inferior education, which led to an increased dropout rate for African-American students.

Northern Illinois Business Corporation (NIBC) was funded by Illinois Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie in 1976 to provide technical assistance to minority small business to start up business in depressed areas. Ron Moore, a young African-American college graduate, was hired as NIBC executive director. Ron grew up in southwest Rockford and graduated from Rockford Boylan High School with honors.

Sometime between the years of 1976 and 1977, Gordon Geddes called me and explained his Geddes Proposal. He discussed that his plan would stimulate economic development and could develop the railroad property into an industrial development project. Gordon said he needed funds to conduct a preliminary study. John Holmstrom Jr., a prominent attorney in the Rockford region, called me and requested a meeting with him and the Rev. Maurice Phillips, executive director of OIC. They requested my support as Fifth Ward alderman for Gordon Geddes with his Geddes Proposal for the railroad project.

I was impressed with Gordon’s proposal and invited him to attend the Northern Illinois Business Corporation monthly meeting. Gordon attended the board meeting, and we voted to support his Geddes Proposal.

Northern Illinois Business Corporation requested Rock Valley Metropolitan Council to conduct the preliminary study for Gordon. All applications for federal funds were required to go through Rock Valley Metropolitan Council before federal funds would be granted.

Description of the Geddes Proposal:

The Geddes Proposal is a flexible concept for the redevelopment of the area bounded by:

1. Rock River on the east;

2. Cedar and Preston streets on the north;

3. South Horace on the west;

4. the south branch of the Kent Creek and Cunningham Road on the south

The object of the proposal is to clear the area of:

1. Not all buildings need to be cleared.

2. Potential for residential development within the area.

3. Currently poor access to the area.

4. Flood problem of north and south branch of Kent Creek.

5. The recreational and cultural possibilities.

Preservation of usable buildings:

The proposal suggests that: Twin Disc, Liebovich Bros., and a number of other well-established firms be included in the plan without disturbances. Street layout should be engineered for future development.

Lack of access:

1. Lack of access to Illinois Toll Road or Bypass 20.

2. The possibility of constructing a transportation corridor from southeast, beginning at the interchange of Bypass 20 and the new 51 expressway.

3. Need north-south access perhaps to be filled as an alternate to the repair of the existing Winnebago Street viaduct.

Land use tenure:

1. The railroads own the largest piece of the area.

2. Other than the railroads, the City of Rockford is the largest landowner, with approximately 95.1 acres, 89.87 of which is in one parcel.

3. Twin Disc Clutch Company, 20.1 acres.

4. Liebovich Bros., 7.9 acres.

Flood and recreation:

1. Construction of the flood project at both north and south branches of Kent Creek (**)

2. Conclusion 1 above notwithstanding, the flood project could be implemented in a limited fashion without construction of the flood project.

** Once the Corps of Engineers completed the flood project at both north and south branches, 68 to 70 percent of flood-prone land in the rail yard west of South Main Street to Horsman Street became inevitable for economic development projects.

We now have an urban land bank for commercial projects usually slated for the far-east and northeast parts of town.

Based on the dream of Gordon Geddes and his vision outlined in the preliminary study conduced by Rock Valley Metropolitan Council, I truly believe the best location for the new passenger rail station in Rockford is property located on Cedar Street directly across from the U.S. Federal Courthouse. This location will give added value to the Amerock development, including the proposed hotel. The newly-purchased property previously owned by Allen Murphy at 514 S. Church St. could accommodate the needed parking projected by the City of Rockford. Two of the present existing buildings located at the north of the consolidated railroad yard were used as freight facilities for Northwest and Burlington rail services carrying goods from east to west through the United States in the early 1900s.

Locating the station at this location would stimulate the following:

1. Complement the preliminary study of the Geddes Proposal completed June 30, 1977, for Gordon Geddes. The purpose of the proposal was to develop an economic development strategy to stimulate productive economic development in the railroad property in the inner city.

2. Reclaim land located in the railroad yard once classified as 100-year flood status prior to building the North/South Kent Creek dam project.

3. Create an interest by the City of Rockford, developers, south/west citizens and Winnebago County to research the feasibility of re-evaluating the need to consider implementing the “Final Report Kent Creek Industrial Strategy, Rockford, Illinois.” (This report was prepared for South West Improvement for Today & Tomorrow, September 1980, now known as South West Ideas for Today & Tomorrow.)

We can learn from the past, and we improve our future if we bring this quality vision forward today. Obviously, modification and compromise on this classic vision will be necessary. Anyone can see if the temporary train station goes out east, the permanent station will never come to the west side of downtown.

Victory Bell served as Fifth Ward alderman in the City of Rockford for 38 years, retiring in 2009.

From the Sept. 17-23, 2014, issue

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