City Beat: Rockford’s future a collective effort

Mayor Morrissey drives home the need for ‘collective impact’ in continuing to rebuild Rockford.

By Shane Nicholson 
Managing Editor

If you had to place your bet today the safe money would be on Mayor Larry Morrissey pushing on for a fourth term.

At his 11th State of the City address Wednesday, the mayor laid out a wide-sweeping agenda for the next year and the overriding message was clear: collective impact.

During a nearly 90 minute presentation at the Nordlof Center’s Sullivan Theater, Morrissey highlighted the recent successes in the city while also mulling over failures of the past 12 months.

“When you’re losing, all the focus is inward,” he said. “When you’re winning, it’s outward. It’s out there, and people can see that.”

The mayor touted the passing of the 1 percent sales tax referendum for a third time, calling it a vital part of rebuilding Rockford’s infrastructure.

“Because of you, we’ve been able to invest over $128 million in local funds into these projects,” he said. “That’s local funds. With state and federal matching funds, that’s over $388 million in leveraged investments.”

Morrissey praised the work of city departments that have come together to deliver an overall plan for progress, and said that keeping that momentum was crucial in light of conditions in Springfield.

“We have to keep moving forward, because god knows we can’t always rely on the state and federal government.”

Fair housing, certainly one of the hot button topics of the past year, got a fair shake during the hour-and-a-half speech. Morrissey said the task of providing an equal opportunity for all of the city’s residents to succeed was not one to take lightly.

“It’s not easy; it’s challenging,” he said. “Why? Because there’s fear. We have to overcome that.”

The mayor was at times forceful in driving home the message of citizen engagement in solving the city’s housing crisis, highlighting projects in all parts of the community.

“Not only are we rebuilding everywhere, we’re rebuilding for everyone.”

He stressed the need to work with lenders to end the trend of zombie properties across Rockford: houses stuck in foreclosure limbo, no longer in the care of an owner but neglected by the banks that hold the titles.

“These homes have created a structural risk,” Morrissey said, “and created barriers in our community.”

Turning to the fight against veterans’ homelessness, the typically cool and calm Morrissey was at times emotional as he described the work to bring vet homelessness to functional zero.

“I didn’t want to set a goal and disappoint veterans,” he said. “I wanted to reach that goal.”

Morrissey praised partners in the community who came together and found solutions to the homelessness problem, but he warned that the fight was far from over.

“When you get to functional zero, the last thing you want is to see a story in the news – is to lose that,” he said.

“But no one else in the country got that done; you should be proud to be part of the community that did.”

Morrissey said that same collective effort needed to be applied to other issues impacting the city. Stemming violent crime, domestic violence, childhood poverty and violence against children were his top priorities on the night.

“I don’t want to be known as the community where’s it easy to commit crime,” the mayor told the audience, saying that law enforcement agencies must continue working together to find solutions. “Anyone who tells you either I or the city aren’t interested in law enforcement collaboration is wrong.”

Morrissey was again visibly shaken as he described the problems facing Rockford’s youths. The city ranks among the worst in the state in child abuse and neglect.

“Collectively, we have failed to protect our children, and I believe we can and will act now to improve these outcomes,” he said. “When I hear about the challenges of abuse and neglect in this community, I know we can do a better job protecting them.”

The mayor also touted the need for continued investment in education programs across all age groups.

“We have a lot of individuals who need to know that lifelong learning is an opportunity for them,” said Morrissey. “We can’t (spur growth) without innovating and supporting our companies with education investments.”

Continuing work with businesses and education partners across the city is the path forward, the mayor said, and bringing all the parties to the table to keep pushing on was high on his list.

“We’re supporting economic growth for all parts of the city, and all people in the city,” he said, adding that the success of pilot programs was an indicator for Rockford to move ahead with community education initiatives. “We want to do this good work all the time.”

Turning his attention downstate, the mayor lamented the ongoing impasse in Springfield. He said that leaning on legislators and leaders to view programs such as the current River Edge tax credits and proposed passenger rail service as vital not only to the city but the entire state. But, he added, that city hall couldn’t do it alone.

“As long as it’s just the City of Rockford, we won’t get anything done,” said Morrissey.

And so the State of the City ended as it started: a call for investment, a call for buy-in, a call to the community. Whether Morrissey seeks re-election in 2017 or not, one thing is certain: collective impact will be the driving force as Rockford continues to move forward.

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