What Will Define The Rockford Of The Future?

I feel I should begin by admitting something: I am a Republican. Feel free to vilify me for that as you see fit. That being divulged, I am also open to ideas and concepts in governmental leadership that run outside of Republican boundaries. So, perhaps, it might be more appropriate to say that I tend to lean toward a Republican stance, without cementing my feet for the sole purpose of simply blindly agreeing with everything they have to say or offer.

This past Saturday, my company (Digital Ninjas Media, Inc.) had the privilege of serving the Winnebago County Republican Central Committee by recording the video and audio of the Lincoln Day event, as well as taking candid photographs of all of the Republican governmental leaders and decision makers.

After all of the speeches were made, I was – frankly – not terribly impressed. Honestly? I was downright discouraged and disenchanted. Worse, Bruce Rauner – who had only one year ago (at this same event, no less) given me renewed hope that Illinois might have finally found the leadership that it was so sorely in need of – gave an uninspired speech that was almost a complete 180 in passion, tone, and message. This is sort of sad, because I still feel like he’s the right man for the job. Perhaps his speech is a sign that the end has already arrived for him before he had that chance.

In amongst all of this maudlin despair, however, there was one shining beacon of light in the bunch, and his name was John M. Guevara. Mr. Guevara gave a speech that spoke to me, with so much passion, that I practically had to knock myself out, lest I spring from my seat and attempt to pledge allegiance to the nearest inanimate object. Yeah: it was that good.

Throughout the whole event, I continued to consider something that I’ve been considering at length for quite some time now. Specifically, I continued to wonder: what’s the magic bullet that begins the healing process of the Rockford region?

After attending the Transform Rockford launch summit some weeks back, and hearing from a myriad group of social, political, and religious leaders, it seemed that a lot of folks had given a lot of thought to a great many facets of the problem(s) plaguing the area that I call my home.

My personal bent, however, remains first and foremost in my mind: what can Rockford do to economically reinvent itself? This, in my opinion, is where I would choose to focus, were I ‘in charge’. And I’m not saying that it’s the right thing, or even should be the top priority. Still, it feels like the right thing to me. I’d let those better suited to matters of crime, education, citizen flight, infrastructure, tax burdens, and other important issues do their thing as they do best. Me? I’m an outside of the box thinker. It’s where my strong suit is, by comparison, to these other august and learned endeavors.

I’ve spent months racking my brain in trying to find an angle on a single – or multiple – business and/or social draws that would make our area a once more sought after commodity. I’ve heard one good suggestion from Mr. Jim Phelps, of Phoenix Traders, when he suggested that we take all of that unused structural space in town to develop a massive warehousing district, with a trucking hub, and with ties to our airport. Frankly, that’s the best idea I have yet heard.

Nevertheless, I still continued to ponder the matter on my own.  When I heard that porn was leaving L.A., I thought, “Perhaps…”. Then, I remembered that it’s cold here, and that given the vociferousness of the religious community (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) it probably wouldn’t fly.

Another thought came when I read an article recently about vertical farming. Specifically, new techniques and products have been developed that permit warehouse-style spaces to become specialty farms by using vertical racks, rather than the traditional, horizontal tracts of land. This seemed like a good idea on a lot of levels, especially if we could somehow cater to the more and more numerous demands of organic food consumers, or possibly to a specific niche market such as ginseng or exotic edibles, or cultivars. This idea I liked.

I also recently came across an article about a group in Detroit – a city that is often cited in comparison to our own, but – as my friend Rhiannon Stanuch pointed out – unfairly, due to the fact that Detroiters seem to have a greater amount of community pride and desire to salvage than we in the Forest City seem to at the moment – that is purchasing homes, and permitting writers to live in them, paying only the taxes and utilities. After two years of residence, the deeds to these homes are turned over to their writer tenants. And while the homes are less than stellar, and in all but defunct neighborhoods, the concept behind the move is a stroke of genius. Me? I hope to hell that it works, and that a new writer’s enclave/utopia develops from the ashes of this once forgotten neighborhood.

Ultimately, Rockford needs jobs. And those jobs, in my humble opinion, will arrive one of two ways: tourism or new business endeavors. I’m thinking that tourism might not be the best choice for the city in its current form. Especially in light of all of the tourist-y things we’ve lost over the past decades: On The Waterfront, The Time Museum, The Rock River Raft Race, and a whole host of other tourist draws.

This leaves business endeavors. Even so, I think we need to find a work-around to the problem of high taxes, high corruption, and high costs of living. The sad reality is that, by comparison, one would have to be almost insane to choose to live in Illinois in its current incarnation. Curse me for saying it, if you will, but I sort of defy you to convince me otherwise. Nevertheless, if we consider the obstacles specifically, we should – hypothetically – be able to develop workarounds: tax abatements or credits; development zones; incentive programs; economy-specific infrastructural modifications. Any or all of these things might prove enough to lure in the businesses. And while potentially losing money on the front end, we could benefit from additional tax revenues and commercial infrastructural rebounding led by the workforce required to fill the jobs that are brought with these new endeavors.

Then, there’s the gambling option. Do I think it sucks? Yep. Me? I’m not a gambler. I work too hard for what I have to simply risk it in a game of chance. That being said, when you’re at the bottom of the well looking up at a pinprick of blue sky, any rope seems like the right one, so long as the result is you out of the depths. A casino, or some sort off controlled gambling zone, might be just the ticket.

Then again, what if we engage in a little cannibalization? A light rail line from Chicago to Rockford would provide a more firm option for Chicago money to sprawl into our area as a viable bedroom community. Likewise, our current workforce – many of whom are displaced from employment – could find a new lifeline to finding a job in a major metropolitan market, with a pay level that would, potentially, be well outside of that offered in Rockford proper. Growing up, I often heard folks older than me shunning a rail line because we would, ‘Just become a part of Chicago, and our cost of living would go up here.’ Maybe so but, in foresight, that seems more like a God-send, and less like a curse, in this day that we find ourselves in.

Whatever the answer, I do know this: we need to find it. We need to find it, and make real efforts to implement it – without dithering, or miring it in bureaucratic red-tape and pissing matches. And this, sadly, might be exactly where good ideas go to die: mired in the swamps of bureaucracy. And that’s a shame. Because our city is on life support, and a number of its citizens seem all too ready to just pull the plug, and humanely euthanize it. Me? I’m not one of them. I think that its history, its culture, and its potential are all the reasons that I need to want to save the place where I was born, and grew up.



Heath D. Alberts – Co-Founder & Marketing Director

Digital Ninjas Media, Inc. (heath@digitalninjasmedia.com)

Author of: “Terminal Beginning” (2010) | “Guerrilla Business” (2012) | “The Battery Man” (2013) | “Last Rights” (2013)

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Categories: Economy & Government

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1 reply

  1. I would like to see neighborhoods develop coop grocery stores. Volunteer workers could get their groceries at sa discount. At the same time other volunteers could raise fresh produce in community gardens that could be sold in the community stores. Rockford needs to become a group of snall self sufficient communities.

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