By John Guevara
There’s a new hullabaloo. Should Rockford put a gas station downtown, or not? This week, answering that question put truth to the Socratic concept, “The only thing I know is that I don’t know a thing.”
The first step in making a solid decision on the issue is to know what it is. Kelley Williamson’s site plan was published on our website last Wednesday, July 26. News coverage, social media posts and water cooler convos are all ways of getting information about the project. The details of the project are in the site plan.
If the proposed station is anything like the upgrade Kelley Williamson completed on North Main and Halsted last year, downtown is in for an improvement.
The best thing about the old North Main Mobil station was the free air pump. It was rare to pull up to that station without seeing at least one driver filling their car’s tires at that air pump. But the station itself was reminiscent of those seen in horror movies. It was also difficult to navigate with pumps on both sides of the building and poor lighting. Thankfully, Rockford police officers were regularly in the parking lot after dark.
The remodel converted that scary station into a sharp facility with a well lit convenience store and a car wash. (Sadly, they replaced the free air pump with a pay air pump and vacuum station.)
Opponents of the Jefferson Street plan argue that the site is recommended for “mixed use, multi-family development.” They say that the vision should be focused on long term development, and that the proposed Mobil station will not generate much more in property taxes than the site already does.
Mark Brodeur wrote an article in 2006 called “Debunking Time: 12 Myths About Downtown.” Myth No. 2 is Zone for Vertical Mixed Use. Brodeur writes, “Mixed use can be good for downtown if it isn’t forced into areas where it may never have been historically.”
Yes, mixed use development has merit. In the past three decades, there has not been mixed use development on the whole block on which the proposed station will sit. Marrying ourselves to one vision – albeit a decade-old one – for downtown employs metaphorical blinders forcing people to see only what a select few think a downtown should look like. These blinders can prevent us from exploring every avenue for making our downtown a better place to live, work, and play.
As for the prospect of meager tax gains, opponents fail to paint the whole picture. There is more to be gained from putting in a gas station than an increase in property taxes. There are sales taxes and motor fuel taxes. Alderman should consider the prospective value of each in addition to property tax revenues when considering the proposal.
A former political staffer for a Freeport area politician once said that people in Freeport would rather visit downtown Dubuque, Iowa than downtown Rockford because downtown Rockford is dangerous. Both the Rockford Police Department and the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department are working tirelessly to make Rockford safer.
It doesn’t help that the gas stations along West State Street heading into downtown, and the station on the corner of Winnebago and Cedar Street, look very much like the former Mobil station at North Main and Halsted. Adding an attractive gas station downtown can help change that perception. The station will also make it easier for downtown to be a destination for regional residents.
Rockford aldermen should view the whole picture when considering the proposed Mobil station and make the right decision for the region. R.