We're back, at long last, after several months of amazing, blog-worthy experiences -- so many blog-worthy experiences, in fact, that we ended up not having time to actually write about them. Our backlog of potential content is enormous, book-ended by a 12-day trip to Copenhagen (we're now forever spoiled when it comes to bicycle infrastructure and just general city awesomeness) and Michael leaving a decade-long career in youth ministry to pursue a Masters in Public Administration (a pursuit that includes an internship with the City of Janesville, WI) towards the end goal of working in local government. If we weren't already the most boring people you know, just wait until he starts blogging about Janesville's open data policies and the differences in municipal taxing possibilities between Illinois and Wisconsin (can you contain your excitement??).
But before we dive into all THAT good stuff, we're coming back at you today with something even better, something that we ourselves can hardly believe is happening. If you've been paying even marginal attention to this blog, or to our personal social media feeds, you will have noticed the name Strong Towns come up again and again. Perhaps you've even liked a few of those articles we've shared, or found a headline intriguing. We've tried to sing their praises pretty loudly and widely, but let me give just a little more support for why this organization has come to mean so much to us.
When Michael and I moved to Rockford about 4 years ago, it wasn't a blind choice: Michael had grown up here, and we'd lived in close proximity for 6 years, during which time virtually all our entertainment and shopping needs were met at Rockford destinations and stores. But it was also decidedly a choice, and an enthusiastic one at that. We loved the historic houses in old neighborhoods, the unique offerings of local restaurants and stores, the proximity of amenities that let us enjoy time together and with friends rather than time in the car, the opportunity to live and play alongside people of different cultures and lifestyles (those of you who know our current neighborhood may balk a little at the idea of it being "diverse" but compared to our previous neighborhood it's like United Colors of Benetton over here).
And although we learned pretty quickly that most of the negative perceptions about Rockford were simply unfounded, there were other sorts of lessons that we began to absorb. For instance, when our closest grocery store was bought out by a large chain and relatively promptly closed because of lagging sales, we learned that there was a "do not compete" city policy that would not allow the property to be sold to another grocery chain (City Council has since removed that policy but that grocery store still sits empty). Further, we learned that an enormous grocery store would be built practically next door to an existing enormous grocery store on the far East side, and that the developer would receive $800K in tax abatement for his trouble.
We learned that although our home's assessed value continued to fall our property tax bill continued to increase (we did a lot of reading but still can't quite claim that we fully understand the "EAV challenge"). And that in spite of a $250M+ bond for school improvements being voted in, and enormous field houses being built at the high schools, our gorgeous, century-old neighborhood elementary school would be closed and probably razed.
We learned that a friend who bought a vacant property and was trying to renovate and start her own business was faced with constant hurdles from zoning regulations, run-around from inspectors, double-talk from city staff, and a potential 6-figure bill for HVAC because she wasn't allowed to install it one floor at a time.
We saw women pushing strollers through ditches full of snow to get to Target, and attendees at summer concerts at a nearby park needing a police escort to cross the street to get there. We watched the city try to balance the budget by taking out street lights while pledging millions to fix a parking garage used primarily by county workers by day and out-of-town hockey attendees at night.
We started to feel a little crazy, and a lot unsettled, and often just plain mad. It seemed like all the things that were the most "city" about Rockford, the places we loved to be, the things and people that make it Real and Original had been ignored and neglected for so long, and all the new and shiny things weren't really making any difference, or helping the city gain ground against the immense list of deferred maintenance projects.
Somewhere along the line, we started reading Strong Towns articles. And it very quickly became apparent that we weren't crazy, and we weren't alone. The things we were seeing in Rockford were true in many places across the country, and there were other people who felt the way we do, and wanted to do something about it. There were clear, straightforward answers to the questions we'd been asking about our own city, words to put to the feelings we had about the decisions we saw being made, evidence and examples to show that there IS another way. We couldn't get enough! All of a sudden it wasn't just a water bill increase, it was another crack in the facade of the 70 year Ponzi scheme that is our water system. It wasn't just a "road improvement", it was highway engineering imposed on a city neighborhood with predictable results of speeding, danger, and further neighborhood deterioration. It wasn't just a sewer project, it was the inevitable result of a failed (or absent) land-use policy, with the additional insult of utter disregard for the long-planned, long-overdue inclusion of pedestrian and bicycle consideration (this example to be further explained in a future post).
Strong Towns has allowed us to powerfully leverage one of greatest things about Rockford -- armed with data, clear and helpful examples, respect, kindness, and a whole lotta enthusiasm, you can get to people who make decisions about the future of our city, and actually make a BIG difference in how those decisions play out. We're not professionals, we're not elected officials, but we care deeply about the trajectory of budgets, planning, and development in Rockford, and the lessons we have learned through the content that Strong Towns creates and shares, the networking we have done with members from across the nation, has given us the confidence to speak to the issues that keep us up at night (well, keep ME up at night...Michael is better at setting things aside when his head hits the pillow...)
So it is with incredible excitement that we announce that Chuck Marohn, Founder and President of Strong Towns, will be here in Rockford on August 29-30, to present and participate a full slate of activities, all of which are FREE, and all of which are open to the public. Here's the run-down:
Monday, August 29:
*5:30pm: Chuck will speak to Rockford City Council during their regular meeting at City Hall. The public is always welcome to attend Council meetings.
*7-8pm: "Chat on the Curb", meet at the future site of The Norwegian Restaurant, 1402 N. Main St., and enjoy discussion about and a tour of the North End.
Tuesday, August 30:
*9-10am: "Chat on the Curb", meet at Katie's Cup, 502 7th St, enjoy discussion and a tour of the Midtown District.
*10:15-11:15am: "Chat on the Curb", meet at City Market Pavilion (intersection of State and Water), enjoy discussion and a tour of the River District.
*2:30-3:30pm: "Chat on the Curb", meet at Dairy Depot, 5413 N. 2nd St, enjoy discussion and a tour of Loves Park.
*5:30-7:30pm: Community Conversation event, Veterans Memorial Hall, 211 N. Main St.. Chuck will give the Strong Towns "Curbside Chat", the cornerstone presentation of the Strong Towns message which you will NOT want to miss.
We are very grateful to Transform Rockford for sponsoring Chuck's visit and a slew of individuals and community organizations for hosting, leading, and promoting the activities during these two days. Please make every effort to attend as many of these events as possible, and help us get the word out. The Strong Towns message and principles provide a path toward a stronger, more resilient future for our community, and this is our chance to see and hear the message first-hand, on the street! It's going to be amazing.