Revitalizing Rockford

By Eileen Figel, May 20, 2013

For many decades, low income communities across the country have been testing strategies and developing tools to revitalize struggling business districts and build stronger, healthier communities.  What do their efforts teach us about what does and doesn’t work?  And how can these lessons be applied to strengthen Rockford’s business districts and neighborhoods?

“We can’t reinvent the wheel,” exclaimed Brad Roos of Zion Development, “that is a waste of time and energy.”  Roos, along with sixty-five colleagues from Rockford area business organizations, community associations, government agencies and non-profits, had just completed a day-long neighborhood revitalization workshop.  It followed a commercial corridor workshop, held one week earlier, on May 8, 2013.

Joel Bookman, Jim Capraro and I have spent the past several years meeting with community based organizations around the country to talk about the challenges they face and the strategies they are using to build up local business districts and improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods.  We were invited to Rockford by the Economic Development, Education, and Entrepreneurship Network (EDEEN) and the Rockford Housing Authority to describe how these communities coming together to build new partnerships, envision a brighter future, and develop and implement plans to achieve that future.

Many of the communities we work with are struggling with the same challenges you face here in Rokford—lack of jobs, blight, drugs, crime, and poverty.  We all know that a strong and healthy neighb

orhood needs more than decent housing and a vibrant business district.  It also requires safe streets, clean parks, good jobs, strong schools, health care and other services.  And because all these elements are inter-related, successful neighborhood revitalization also requires an integrated and holistic approach.

We also know that decades of disinvestment will not be reversed overnight, and some of the problems—like the foreclosure crisis—are beyond the control of any single neighborhood.  Yet we do see communities finding ways to unite around a common vision and drive positive change. While each community is different, many of the strategies and techniques used elsewhere will also work here in Rockford.  As Brad Roos said, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel; you can build upon the good work already happening in hundreds of communities like yours.  Here, again, are some of 

the strategies and techniques shared at the recent workshops.

Tip 1:  It is all about relationships.  Begin with engagement.   

A strong network of relationships among persons and organizations enables a neighborhood to seize opportunities, respond to threats, and better recover from disasters.   As Jim Capraro, our guru of community engagement, tells us, “All opportunities come from relationships, always.”

When I was the Director of the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development, we began collecting best practices for civic engagement.  We did not intend to promote one method above all others, but community after community honed in on a method of engagement which Jim piloted in Chicago Lawn, a working-class community where he spent 35 years directing one of the most successful CDCs in Chicago.   And there is a reason they chose to follow Jim’s method:  It works. 

The single most essential element is a series of one-on-one interviews conducted to better understand the priorities of the neighborhood, identify and “audition” new leaders, and draw them into the process.  And one of the first steps in this process is developing a common vision for the future.  “You want a vision that is so powerful that, when people hear it, they want to be in it.”  This vision is what drives the planning process, making sure everyone is on the same page and working towards the same end goal.  It also begins to build new relationships, between individuals and organizations, that can be tapped to drive the change the community wants to see.

At the workshops, Jim summed it up like this:  “Building relationships is like having a savings account that you are banking for a rainy day.  Relationships give you a wider array of strategies; relationships give you the opportunity to have more solutions.” 

Read more about Jim’s process for community engagement here.