Rockford's First Neighborhood Congress: Four Areas Share Boundaries and Vision

Four neighborhood organizations in Rockford (IL) have held a "Congress" aimed at strengthening and improving the North End neighborhood they share. The first-of-its-kind gathering of North End residents and other concerned members of the Rockford community on June 20 was the culmination of nine months of preparation - planning, research, meetings and other efforts - by the Churchill's Grove, Edgewater, North End Square and Signal Hill neighborhood groups. Overall, the residents of the four areas are predominantly white, middle- to upper-income homeowners. They represent a mix of white collar and blue collar workers, seniors and younger families. Many of their homes are large. Moving west through these neighborhoods, there generally are found lower incomes, smaller homes, more renters, and more ethnically diverse residents. The four neighborhoods share boundaries (two major streets) and a business district; their residents share a commitment to seeking greater participation, and consensus, in overall improvement efforts.

The Neighborhood Congress was one of several neighborhood-building initiatives which have been launched as a result of the "Blueprint for Rockford's Future: 2005," a 10-year plan spearheaded in 1994 by Mayor Charles Box. Drafted by more than 500 Rockford citizens over a nine-month period, the blueprint produced a vision for the City and a plan to achieve it in seven broad areas, including neighborhood development. (It also produced an award for consolidated planning from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.)

Priority Topics
The goal of the First Annual North End Neighborhood Congress also involved producing a vision - this one for all the neighborhoods involved - and then developing potential strategies and joint projects to realize that vision. A Neighborhood Congress Planning Group brought resident members of each of the associations together to work in focus groups on topics of mutual concern, including housing, property standards, security and the North End Business District.

 Housing - To build on the neighborhoods' strengths and correct their shortcomings, strategies were developed to (1) change negative community perceptions, (2) promote the neighborhoods, (3) clean them up and maintain them, (4) maintain the single family status of the larger homes, and (5) use the neighborhood associations as vehicles for carrying out action plans.

Property Standards - To develop a process to remedy environmental problems, recommendations were to (1) establish a Neighborhood(s) Development Corporation, with paid staff, to purchase and renovate properties, (2) establish a Neighborhood Property Standards Committee to help neighbors resolve problems, (3) provide financial assistance for neighborhood-based self-help projects, (4) conduct neighborhood strength-based assessments to identify physical and financial resources for improvement projects, (5) organize neighborhood clean-ups, (6) conduct group painting, beautification, anti-litter and similar projects, (7) recognize accomplishments and successes, and (8) complete a property standards survey to identify primary concerns.

Security - To make neighborhoods safer, recommendations were to (1) facilitate neighbors getting to know one another, (2) facilitate sharing of information, (3) explore assisting other neighborhoods to the west, especially in working with youth, (4) explore changing real estate boundaries (i.e., the way realtors group homes to market them) to more closely match neighborhood association boundaries, (5) establish neighborhood patrols, (6) encourage positive news media coverage of areas, and (7) identify traffic problems and use existing tools to minimize them and make systemic improvements.

North End Business District - Based on a business and resident survey, strategies were developed to (1) attract and promote businesses which serve and enhance the lives of the people of the neighborhoods and the greater Rockford community, (2) encourage mutual support among businesses and neighbors in order to foster a greater sense of community, and (3) become a unified and cohesive voice to improve the appearance, safety and quality of the business district so that it can contribute to the stability of the surrounding neighborhoods.

 A report summarizing the research conducted and the recommendations made by the focus groups was drafted, and the recommendations were presented to an audience of more than 150 residents attending the Neighborhood Congress at Rockford's St. Peter Cathedral.

In addition to being briefed on plans to improve the North End, Congress participants were offered several workshops on practical aspects of improvement and neighborhood cohesion.

 Make-Over Magic: Ideas Every Property Owner Can Use - A local architect, artist and landscape architect presented approaches to design, plantings and color that can change the appearance of a home, highlighting its positive features and minimizing its shortcomings. How Do We Make Our Association Work? - Two local neighborhood planners briefed participants on how to encourage associations to grow and take on more complex issues. This session included audience participation in discussions of how to develop and maintain the momentum needed to make neighborhood visions a reality. How Time Has Altered Rockford and the Appearance of Its Historic Neighborhoods - An author and local historian presented the history of the neighborhoods and the unique qualities which have been lost or are in need of preservation. Participants expanded upon the presentation with their personal observations on their neighborhoods. The How-To's of Holding Property Owners Accountable - Staff from the City's Community Development Department, Building Department and Legal Department presented information on what is and is not acceptable activity for property owners, and discussed how residents and neighborhood groups could work with them to report violations and change current legislation.

Healthy Neighborhoods: The Role of Not-for-Profit Development Corporations - The benefits of forming a not-for-profit corporation to demonstrate what residents can do to contribute to development were explained by a panel made up of members of two such organizations.

Our Shared Future: Public and Private Downtown Projects - Representatives of the City, the Rockford Park District, the Burpee Natural History Museum and the Coronado Theater described how their combined investments of over $20 million will affect downtown Rockford, the North End's neighbor to the south.

Conversions: How Does It Happen and How Can We Stop It? - How both legal and illegal conversions of single family dwelling units to multiple units are causing trouble for the neighborhoods was discussed by staff members of the City Legal Department and Planning Division. Issues are density, quality of life and property maintenance, and City staff discussed how to recognize and remedy illegal conversions.

 "What the North End neighborhoods are accomplishing is exactly what we all hoped would be accomplished when the Rockford Blueprint was drafted," said Mayor Box. "They have opened up communication across their neighborhoods, they have agreed on what they want for their neighborhoods, and they have drafted a plan that will get them what they want - including this City's support."

Additional information on the Neighborhood Congress, as well as the Rockford Blueprint, is available from Laurie Kronenberg at (815) 967-6777.

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