By Shane Nicholson
NORDLOF CENTER – Mayor Larry Morrissey recounted his 12 years in office and painted a vision for the future of Rockford Wednesday night in his final State of the City address.
After opening with a moment of silence for the victims of the attack in London earlier in the day, the 47-year-old stuck to the script and stayed behind the podium in a short and simple pitch to citizens, including a plea to complete the downtown hotel project.
Morrissey thanked his family for their influence in bringing him to public service and his Catholic faith, something he said has been a driving factor during his three administrations.
The mayor repeatedly drew parallels to the Parable of the Three Servants in the Book of Matthew as an illustration of the political battles that have plagued the city, saying, “While we all recognized the treasures throughout our community, many of those treasures had been buried – due to fear.”
The mayor pleaded for Rockford to continue to invest in the city’s west side, saying the “two sides of a city” narrative had permeated the community to its detriment.
“For many decades, investments associated with prosperity moved east to the interstate,” he said, lamenting that investments on the west side of Rockford had been tied to poverty and regression.
“We can not blame the decisions made by those before us,” Morrissey said, dragging out the common list of big regret for citizens of Rockford: the interstate’s eastward trek; the non-annexation of Cherry Valley; Chrysler’s final destination in Belvidere; and that old NIU could’ve come to Rockford chestnut.
But the mayor painted a far rosier picture of gains in infrastructure and public works during his tenure, applauding the city’s residents for first passing the 1 percent sales tax to pay for the Rebuilding Rockford initiative before re-certifying the funding measure two more times. Morrissey said that the legislation had allowed more than $500 million in local, state and federal funds to be spent on projects across town.
The work and efforts of various community partners and organizations found praise from Morrissey throughout his 45 minute address. The mayor fell back often to the search for economic prosperity for all of Rockford’s citizens, saying it was only possible with the help of the city’s many regional partners.
Improving community health outcomes filled the middle third of the night, with Morrissey highlighting the work of emergency services in the larger effort to improve quality of life for the city’s residents. “We must have the best possible health care for Rockford – and the state of Illinois – for our city to prosper,” he said.
Morrissey said that seeing data driven decision making as a force for change was one of the highlights of his time in city hall. “The biggest challenge to me is not whether our management system succeeded during my time in office, but rather we continue to pursue a vision of excellence for our city after I’m gone.”
Morrissey turned his attention to the future in the closing moments of his speech, calling for systemic changes to city government, including the elimination of partisan political campaigns at the local level.
“I think our current council structure contributes to the lack of a cohesive vision,” he said, calling for at least some council members to be elected at large, eschewing the city’s administrative wards.
“The current partisan model seems way out of touch with how we analyze, evaluate and implement ideas at the local level.”
The mayor finally moved to discussion of the stalled Amerock hotel project, saying that many critics of the investment were the same voices who have battled west side investments throughout his time in office.
“I’m proud to say we won most of those battles,” he said. “Now I’m hearing similar arguments to the current proposal. I’ve heard more than once from people who have said the hotel will literally be ‘too nice.’”
The three-term mayor said such arguments could not be allowed to win this time either. “We’re worthy of outstanding investments in our community. We’re worthy and we deserve this project.”
Morrissey said those vocally fighting outside investment in the community should be questioned, and that it was the city’s duty to play its part in seeing the hotel and convention center brought to fruition.
“Our job is not to keep our treasure in the bank,” he said, harking back to his parable-driven theme while referring to economic development funds earmarked for the convention center and the recently approved expansion of the City Market. “Our job is to invest.”
The mayor, saying that the council was just two votes shy of passing the measure, returned to a core motif of his presentation, asking, “Would we even be having a questions about this investment if this hotel was on the east side along the tollway?” The crowd in attendance played their part in the rhetorical inquiry, a call of “No!” sounding in unison.
And as he wrapped up his speech, preparing to exit the political stage and looking forward to spending more time with his family, it was clear Morrissey was ready to take up the role as vocal citizen in the fight for the continued progress of his hometown.
“This is a moment we can change all of that history. This is a moment for us to show we all believe in Rockford’s future.”