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.


Tip 2:  Use a structured planning process.

When Dan Kelly of River City Rentals said he is “tired of having the problem studied to death,” I saw a lot of other workshop participants nodding in agreement.  Believe me, you are not alone.  During 26 years as a planner, this is probably the most frequent complaint I have heard from the communities I have worked with.  No community wants someone from city hall dictating to them a plan for their future.  And even a well-intentioned funder sponsoring yet another pretty plan that will sit upon a shelf accomplishes nothing.

But, when planning is done well, it has the power to bring people together and unite them around a cohesive vision for their future.  And if the plan accurately reflects market conditions and other trends, it can provide a rational and realistic roadmap to achieve that future. 

The best community plans, then, share these key traits:

  • Community-driven. No one knows a community like the people who live there, work there, or operate a business there day in and day out, year after year.  These are the community experts and they are the people who must determine what they want their community to be and how they will make change happen. 
  • Asset-based.  Every community, no matter how poor, has people, organizations, and other assets that can be tapped to drive positive change.  A good planning process identifies and deploys these assets.
  • Guided by a cohesive vision.  There must be a clear and cohesive vision which pulls the community together and guides all the players to the same end goal.  At the May 15 workshop, I shared a lesson from Woonsocket, Rhode Island, where the community jumped right from engagement to strategy development without first establishing a clear vision for their future.  Six months later, 25 working groups were all headed in different directions, nobody knew how to tie it together, and things started to fall apart.  So they took a step back, rewound, and formulated a unifying vision which then guided them to successful completion of their plan.  Read all eight lessons from Woonsocket’s planning process here.
  • Holistic, strategic, and integrated.  Good plans address a wide range of the various elements of healthy business districts and healthy communities.  They not only take a holistic approach to revitalization, they also recognize that all these elements are deeply inter-related.  Therefore, strategies should be deliberately integrated to complement and support each other.
  • Actionable.  A good plan is designed for action.  In Chicago, each community’s plan includes a clear implementation strategy, and each community develops a system for accountability.   Review the implementation strategy (work plan) for Chicago Lawn by scrolling to page 33 here.   

Tip 3: Tell your story.

Many workshop participants are concerned that the local news media doesn’t do a good job telling the true story of Rockford communities.  We hear this same concern from communities across the country.  Unfortunately, in a news culture obsessed with ratings and dominated by soundbites, too often the only story told about low income communities focuses on violence.  That is why you need to tell your own story. 

Gordon Walek, the communications manager for LISC Chicago, tells communities to “forget the elevator speeches, the messaging, and the endless media outreach” and just tell a story that explains some aspect of what you do and why you do it.   Even if you tell just one story per month, Gordon points out, at the end of the year “you’ll have 12 stories to slice, dice, re-purpose and selectively distribute to elected officials, funders, neighborhood organizations/staff, and other interested parties on your mailing list.”

Bob Campbell, a resident of Midtown, said, “We don’t market our neighborhoods effectively; we don’t even THINK about marketing our neighborhoods that way.”  Time to start. 

And you are not starting from zero.  When asked to identify some of the good working already underway in Rockford communities, Pastor Michael Thomas immediately stood up to praise Longwood Plaza, Katie’s Cup and other good work being done Brad Roos or Zion Development.  And Dyana Chandler commended Ron Clewer for creating “a complete culture shift” at the Rockford Housing Authority.  This good work is just the tip of the ice berg.  Start documenting all the important work already underway and begin telling the full story about your communities. 

There are lots of ways to do this.   In Richmond’s Fulton Hill community, a team of 25 neighbors walked up and down the commercial street and identified all the things that are working.  They launched a “business of the month” program and gave the first award to the best looking storefront.  They put an announcement on their website and brought 150 people to the store to present and celebrate the award.  Read more about efforts in Fulton Hill here.

Tip 4:  Implement.

Once you’ve engaged your community, lined up your partners, and completed your plan, it is time to implement it.  But where do you start?  As Joel Bookman explained, a lot of people don’t know, and that is why some plans end up sitting on a shelf.  You can’t do 20 projects in the first year; you need to set priorities.  Joel recommends you choose four to six projects to get started, and these projects should be critical, visible, catalytic, and doable

Read Joel’s tips for plan implementation here.

Tip 5:  Act early.

Don’t wait until the plan is completed to begin taking action.   Small projects which are highly visible and don’t cost much money will energize the community and show people you are serious about making change.

In Richmond, Virginia, the Fulton Hill community created a “white box” for 12 vacant storefronts by cleaning and painting the interiors so each space would be ready for a new business to move in.  The landlords loved it, and the local alderman—seeing that businesses were starting to invest in the district—secured a $100,000 grant from the city budget to pay for new sidewalks and street lights.  She told the community, “Let’s do this together,” and asked them to plant gardens on the corners.

Tip 6:  Persevere.

When Joel tried to fill vacant storefronts in Chicago’s Albany Park community, he was told businesses wouldn’t come there until the street got cleaned up and crime went down.  Joel’s team went to work cleaning up the corridor.  They went to neighbors and asked them what kinds of shops and services were needed.  They put together a list of needed stores:  grocery, stationery store, etc., and began calling up companies to invite them to set up shop.  Each time he was told no, he asked why, then came up with a strategy to address the specific concern.  

For example, when a Hallmark representative told Joel his community was too dangerous for a Hallmark store, Joel pulled the crime statistics for Albany Park AND for two communities where the man’s existing Hallmark shops were located.  “We showed him,” Joel explained, “that we had a lower crime rate than two of the suburban neighborhoods where he had stores.” Next the man told Joel that the vacant stores in Albany Park were too small, so Joel found a larger space AND asked the landlord to lower the rent AND went to the local bank and asked them to package a loan AND found a local franchisee to operate the store.  Finally convinced, Hallmark opened the first new shop in Albany Park in 30 years, starting a new trend of investment that changed the future of the business district.

“You need to understand what people want, and you need to get them to come together around a common vision,” says Joel.  And, he added, “You need to persevere.”

What’s next?

Workshop participants discussed options for moving forward.  Bob Campbell is ready to use Jim Capraro’s engagement model and plans to get started by identifying eight people he will talk to next.

Joel Bookman suggested finding an intern or class of students that will help your community begin to tell its story.

Ron Clewer, CEO of the Rockford Housing Authority, issued a challenge to the participants.  “It is really about rising up from the street and saying, ‘We are going to take control; we are going to make a difference.’ “ 

“Sometimes when you are down, it seems like the challenges are insurmountable,” explained Dyanna Chandler of the West Gateway Coalition.  “But we saw a lot of examples from neighborhoods around the country that are struggling with these same challenges, and it gave me hope we can do that here.”

Yes, you can.