by BETH ALTENA
The year 2011 is a milestone for the Rockford Chamber of Commerce, which will celebrate 50 years of supporting the greater Rockford business community. At the organization’s December luncheon, a panel of five community leaders shared their thoughts on the present and future of Rockford. Rockford Chamber Board President Dr. Carl Stites, outgoing State Representative Tom Pearce, County Commissioner Roger Morgan, Rockford City Manager Michael Young, and Rockford Superintendent of Schools Dr. Michael Shibler each spoke Monday, Dec. 6 at Rockford High School.
Stites said the Rockford Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1961 and the community was very different. That year, Rockford High School graduated 150 seniors, compared to 660 this year.
“Back then, Lake Bella Vista was a swamp,” said Stites. “This whole area has grown immensely. The Rockford Chamber has doubled in size in the last 12 to 15 years.”
Stites said that as a board, the Chamber has been contemplating how to manage the growth of the organization and recently held brainstorming sessions, has organized focus groups and has asked members for their feedback. He said the number one request members asked for was marketing.
“It’s an exciting time to be in the Chamber,” Stites stated. “We intend to use your input to plan for the next ten to twenty years and look forward to another great fifty years.”
The Chamber membership, within just a few percentage points, exists of the businesses in downtown Rockford and the outlying business communities, such as Belmont, Cedar Rock and Cannon Township.
“It’s not just the downtown anymore, the way it was in the 1960s when the business community existed as the Squires Street Square Association. We do represent everybody,” Stites said.
State Representative Tom Pearce spoke following Stites. Term-limited out of office, Pearce said his years as state representative “were an incredible time for me.” He said there were many things he and his colleagues in Lansing were unable to accomplish, but one point of pride was reintroducing the 2X formula for school funding. This is a measure designed to increase the lowest-funded schools at an increased level compared to the schools which receive higher levels of state funding. He said for the last three out of four years the funding for Cedar Springs, Rockford and Sparta was increased. “Have we gotten there fully? Not even close,” Pearce said.
Raising rates pushes businesses into closing their doors, Pearce said, and stated that changing business taxing is an important issue to Michigan. He said effort was made to try to help the manufacturing industry in the state, but in all likelihood there was nothing state government could have done to save manufacturing businesses. He said it is unrealistic for state employees, including police and teachers, to not contribute to their insurance and asked for a hand-count of business people who do contribute to their benefits.
State government should be looking for long-term cost containment, what should be funded at the state level, and a tax formula. Pearce called for commonsense regulations and welcoming job providers to the state with open arms. He said the state should be helping businesses be successful and protect the environment at the same time.
Pearce said he would like to have some role in government, perhaps a role with the new governor or as an advocacy in Lansing for something he is passionate about.
Kent County Commissioner for District 3, Roger Morgan, was the next speaker.
“I think you should step back and count your blessings if you are in Kent County,” Morgan said. “This county is better run than many.”
Morgan said Kent County is very fortunate to have a base of the very wealthy, the Meijers, DeVoses and others who seem to look around at each other and ask, “Whose turn is it to give a million dollars?” He said the county, with 500,000 residents, is one of few in the state to retain their triple A bond rating. Morgan said he went to New York to defend the rating, and said counties here are in the negative simply by being located in Michigan.
Describing Kent as a “very forward-thinking county,” Morgan noted that employees of the county do pay 15 percent of their insurance. He said it took eight years to implement the system, which you won’t see in other forms of government.
Among the county’s blessings is a very active sports commission, Morgan stated. He said he expected an announcement in the next couple of weeks regarding the proposed ball field complex on Ten Mile Road.
“In a couple of weeks we will have a ten million dollar fund drive,” said Morgan.
Morgan said the commission would not make the announcement until they have an assured three or four million in funding. “That’s huge seed money, and the complex will be a huge benefit to Rockford,” he said.
City Manager Michael Young was the fourth speaker and shared that he has been Rockford’s city manager since 1995.
“I spoke with Dr. Shibler about not depressing the entire audience,” Young stated. “I’ve been in government for 20 years and I have never seen it this bad as far as funding.”
“If I start with anything and you leave with anything, it is that the City of Rockford is great,” continued Young. “I don’t want to pick up a newspaper and read that the City of Rockford is struggling or in bad shape. Rockford will continue to do well, not just the City but the greater Rockford as well. You will not find a city that cooperates this well with schools. I see many school administrators here today. I had phone calls from Tom Pearce from the floor of the house and he told me, ‘Michael, I can fight for money for the city or I can fight for money for the schools. I’m going to fight for the schools.’ I told him that was the right thing to do.”
Young also talked about the loss of Rockford’s court. “It wasn’t pretty, but it is over. I love Roger Morgan. We’re good friends and he is my son’s godfather. We didn’t agree over that, but now it is over.”
This is the eighth year in a row both revenue and state-shared funding decreased for Rockford, Young said. It has been five years in a row with a decrease in gas tax.
“I’m not crying in my soup,” Young stated.
The City has adapted by cutting 20 percent of full-time staff by attrition with remaining staff absorbing the workload.
Young talked about some highlights of the City, and mentioned the new Ice Festival held last year for the first time in downtown Rockford, which has garnered the attention of the Food Network, who plans to film this year’s festival. To date there will be over 70 sculptures. “Talk about great national attention for Rockford,” said Young.
Still counting Rockford’s blessings, Young noted that the closing of the tannery could have been devastating, and in a lot of ways it was. He said the closing cost $500,000 a year in sewer treatment income, and also cost jobs.
“Wolverine could have walked away from that and concentrated on making shoes. They didn’t do that. They are investing six to eight million dollars in downtown Rockford,” said Young. “They have told me that this winter they will sit down and we are going to come up with a redevelopment plan of the rest of the property.”
Young said the new shoe store will provide another 140 unrestricted parking spaces to downtown and will be the company’s flagship store. “There won’t be another like it in the country,” he said.
The meeting wrapped up with a powerful talk from Dr. Shibler, who said he has been in education since 1961 and Rockford’s superintendent since 1989.
“It is a real privilege to serve this district,” said Shibler.
Shibler told how he began the Rockford Action Model for Success (RAMS) in 1989 with RAMS I. He said the Chamber is a huge benefit to the business community and he has had the pleasure to serve on the board for the past 15 years. He said the Chamber works well with the school and the city as well as the business community.
Shibler said he spoke in Detroit recently about school funding and was asked if there was any good news regarding schools. “I went on so long they had to cut me off,” Shibler stated.
Rockford is the only school with a strategic plan for success, and in 1995 started requiring graduates to prove they have adequate math and reading skills for employment. Shibler noted that Rockford is the only large school district to have every building earn the Blue Ribbon for excellence designation. He said Rockford is one of two schools (along with East Grand Rapids) to be given straight As from the state. He noted that Rockford offers the highest number of varsity sports in Kent County and is the only district to be selected to test the Classrooms of the Future program.
With the last bond issue, the district was able to add 20 athletic fields, upgrade technology and add classrooms. Rockford Public Schools earned the EnergyStar award, a national recognition for energy-saving practices and the Rams undertaking with businesses shows community pride in the district and did not cost the schools one dime.
Shibler then progressed to the bad and the ugly of school funding. He pointed out that Rockford remains in the lowest level of funding, comparing the district’s $7,300 per student to other districts’ $12,000 per student.
“My job description has changed radically in the past ten years,” Shibler stated.
Shibler said if Rockford were funded at the highest level, such as Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham, the budget would be nine million dollars more annually. He said he has made $9.6 million in cuts in the past three years, including $3.4 last year. He has laid off 12 percent of administrators, 9 percent of teachers and 11 percent of support staff.
Shibler said he believes funding in the state could be improved by lowering sales tax from six percent to five and extending it to some services.
“Put a sunset on it. When the economy improves, retire it,” Shibler said.
Shibler said the state loses $36 billion in loopholes and tax incentives. “Take just two billion of that and fix the economy,” he stated.
Consolidating school districts is not the fix, Shibler said. He stated that he is 64 years old, has been with Rockford 22 years and could retire, but doesn’t plan to. “I love what I’m doing. I love Rockford and I am going to continue to fight for what is right. If this structural deficit isn’t fixed this summer, we face cuts of $300 per kid. Times that by 8,000 students.”
Shibler said the state has to fix its funding problems and stop cutting budgets. “Police, fire, schools—they are all paid for by taxes,” he said. “We can’t keep cutting. It doesn’t work..”