Regionalism has been the chief buzzword of the Rockford Register Star for several years now, and, for once, on a rather limited level, I actually agree with the local Gannett paper. There are certain problems facing Rockford that require coordination with surrounding communities and with county government, especially questions of land use. This section of Northern Illinois consistently makes the American Farmland Trust’s list of the ten most-endangered farming areas, and local developers, taking advantage of politicians’ lust for tax dollars, have created suburban sprawl that must look, from above, like a bacterial culture, slowly but inexorably choking off all open space in the petri dish that the LGP calls “the Rock River Valley.”
Regionalism, of course, can be consistent with subsidiarity—the idea that the authority to address a particular issue should remain at the appropriate (i.e., the lowest) level. It can also be used to subvert subsidiarity, however, and sometimes in rather subtle ways. Throughout the 12 years of the Rockford school-desegregation lawsuit, for instance, the LGP ran monthly stories on the local real-estate market that routinely discussed regional housing values and numbers of sales, masking the destruction in the more geographically limited Rockford school district wrought by the highest property tax rate in the nation. Housing statistics for the district—when they were included at all—were hidden in the final paragraphs of the story, tucked away neatly on an inside page of the business section.
Today, the LGP is performing a similar sleight of hand by focusing on regional unemployment figures of 8.1 percent for December 2003 and 8.3 percent for the entire year (a ten-year high), while confining the figure for the city of Rockford—10.3 percent—to the sixth paragraph of an eight-paragraph story. And while the LGP notes that the unemployment rate for the region has risen for the third year in a row—it was 6.5 percent in 2001 and 7.8 percent in 2002—it provides no historical data for the city.
As Rockford’s only daily newspaper, the Register Star largely molds the perception of economic issues—not only among the broader public but among business, political, and civic leaders. Thus, there was a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg quality when the LGP ran an article on January 29 entitled “New approach, name at chamber meeting”:
The Rockford Area Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday night unveiled a marketing effort for 2004 that centers on something that no city can lure away and that will never lay off workers: rivers.
Called Four Rivers, the “community image campaign” will feature print, radio and television ads touting the Rock, Pecatonica, Kishwaukee and Sugar rivers in the Rock River Valley . . .
The campaign is only the latest in a series of marketing missteps by the Chamber of Commerce and its sister organization, the Council of 100. While it doesn’t reek of despair like the former slogan—“Rockford: A Different Kind of Greatness”—it doesn’t include the word Rockford, either.
The chamber unveiled the campaign in the wake of another round of bad news: CLARCOR, founded as J.L. Clark in Rock-ford a century ago, has announced that it will move its corporate headquarters to Nashville; Textron, which had closed two local factories last year, will close two more this year (for a total of 1,050 lost jobs), while opening a $35-million plant in Mississippi; and Atwood Mobile Products will close its final two local factories in 2004, putting 300 people out of work. (The Atwood family has been in manufacturing in Rockford for 94 years.)
While the factory closings and relocations will undoubtedly have regional significance, their impact—like the impact of all the local manufacturing jobs that have been lost over the past three years—will be felt most strongly in Rockford proper. That’s why the chamber’s new regional focus seems more like a cop-out than the strong business leadership that Rockford needs. If the chamber’s new website (oneregionfourrivers.com) is any indication, the Four Rivers campaign will focus largely on attracting tourists to the area, but no city of 150,000 can expect to replace an economy based on manufacturing with one based on tourism. And the Four Rivers region, as defined by the chamber, extends well beyond Rockford—in fact, one of the five counties included in the region is in southern Wisconsin! Any increase in tourist dollars won’t come close to offsetting the lost wages of factory workers.
At the unveiling of its marketing campaign, the chamber announced that it will soon relocate its offices (which it shares with the Council of 100) and will rename itself the Rockford Regional Chamber of Commerce. While the location of the new offices has not been revealed, the name-change likely means that the chamber and the council will move out of downtown—and the significance of that will not be lost on the average Rockfordian. Why should a laid-off factory worker continue to search for a new job in a town whose business leaders seem to have given it up for dead? For that matter, why should anyone employed by a company that might soon leave Rockford not hedge his bets by starting to look for his own way out? After all, the Four Rivers Chamber of Commerce (as local talk-show host Chris Bowman christened it) is unlikely to do much of anything to convince his employer to stay.
Callers to Bowman’s radio show often complain that Rockford’s leadership lacks vision. Too often, however, the opposite is true: Our business, political, and civic leaders see too far—all the way to Wisconsin, even. What we need are more nearsighted leaders—men like Chris Bow-man, who, after rising to the position of political director of the Republican National Committee, returned to his hometown to help it fight for its survival. In Rockford today, alas, such men are in short supply.