The Rockford Files

Revitalizing Rockford

In January, this column will celebrate its fifth anniversary.  When Tom Fleming and I originally conceived of the idea back in 1998 (as an occasional “Letter From Rockford” to be written by various local activists), we were capitalizing on the fact that our city was considered by marketing agencies and national chains as an ideal testing ground, because, demographically—on questions of race, income, education, etc.—Rockford represented the national averages.

Seven years later, that is no longer true—minorities make up a greater percentage of the population than they do in the nation as a whole; average income is slightly lower (depending on which statistics you believe); educational levels have slipped.  It is too early to tell whether these trends are harbingers of America’s future direction, but one thing is clear: Economically, Rockford is still forecasting America’s future.

For a city of 150,000 people, a solid economic base requires that income flow in from the outside.  In this respect, the frenzy of commercial development on the east side of town over the past 20 years has actually decreased Rockford’s economic viability, not increased it.  The lion’s share of every dollar spent at a national chain, such as Wal-Mart, leaves the local economy, never to return—unless, of course, it returns in the form of another local Wal-Mart...

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