Sterling, Rock Falls mayors: Two cities with one future
|Rock Falls Mayor David Blanton (left) and Sterling Mayor Skip Lee discuss issues involving the two cities during an interview Tuesday morning at the Sauk Valley Media office in Sterling. (Alex T. Paschalemail@example.com)|
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STERLING – Sterling Mayor Skip Lee and Rock Falls Mayor David Blanton each have their own way of leading their cities.
But in an interview this week with Sauk Valley Media, both said cooperation does exist between the two towns.
The sharing of Rock Falls Deputy Fire Chief Gary Cook is one example. Last November, Cook’s contract was extended through Dec. 31.
The mayors, who arrived at the newspaper’s office together, agreed about a lot during many parts of the conversation. Among the topics discussed were the fire chief sharing, the possibility of combining 911 dispatch services, the future of riverfront development, and tension between the two cities.
Many times during the conversation, Lee agreed with Blanton. He said the two meet monthly for lunch, occasionally with Dixon Mayor Jim Burke, as well.
Lee even joked that recently, he had talked to Blanton more than to his own wife.
Lee, who was elected mayor last year, said Blanton has qualities that have helped him learn to be a better mayor. Lee said he looks up to Blanton’s years of experience.
Lee predicted the area will see smaller manufacturing companies in the future. He said members of economic development organizations are always looking for opportunities to bring new businesses to the area.
Blanton agreed. He said small businesses provide something bigger businesses can’t.
Small businesses have hands-on operation and aren’t managed by a CEO in New York, he said. They know what’s going on at their businesses and are interested in more than just a dividend.
Responding to “Caught in the Middle”
Both mayors have read Richard C. Longworth’s book, “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism.” SVM recently sponsored a forum on the book, which looks at the decline of manufacturing in the Midwest.
“He pointed out that the great cities of the world have reinvented themselves many times,” Lee said. “I think that’s particularly applicable to our situation here, because we’re in the process of reinventing ourselves.
“The days of manufacturing as we once knew it are no longer here, and Mayor Blanton and I are working closely together in that process.”
Lee said that he would not cut Rock Falls’ throat in the process of trying to bring more development to Sterling. Blanton agreed, saying a job in Rock Falls is a job for the whole community.
Blanton said he saw merit in parts of the book and the topics discussed, but pointed out that the economy has changed since it was written in 2008.
“I think the interesting part is, we may have lost our industries, but we haven’t lost because we’ve continued on,” he said.
Blanton said many businesses have been successful through the Whiteside County Enterprise Zone.
In 2010, new investment for the Whiteside County Carroll County Enterprise Zone was $21.8 million, according to Betty Steinert, Whiteside County Economic Development Administrator. For just Sterling and Rock Falls, an investment of $17.7 million was made.
Investment can include land purchase, renovation of existing facilities, additions, new construction, and machinery, Steinert said.
One hundred and fifty nine jobs were created; 308 were retained.
In 2011, investment for the zone was $12 million. For Sterling and Rock Falls, $8.3 million was invested. Last year, 85 jobs were created, and 309 were retained, Steinert said.
The city of Rock Falls had 23 ribbon cuttings for new businesses last year, Blanton added.
In conversations he has had with local industry leaders, Blanton said, he has heard signs of confidence.
Despite the loss of manufacturing jobs, the population of the area has not changed much since the last census, Blanton noted.
According to census data, Rock Falls’ population fell by 3.2 percent, or 314 people, from 9,580 to 9,266, from 2000 to 2010. Sterling lost half of a percentage point of its population, dropping by 81 people to 15,370.
Blanton doesn’t always trust census numbers, though, he said.
“I kind of disagree with the census somewhat, because I know previously they didn’t get the high rise [apartments], for an example,” he said.
Lee said the area won’t see huge manufacturing companies that employ 2,000 people in the future. Diversification is the key to survival, he said.
“I think what we’re going to see is many more of the smaller shops, 50 to 150 employees,” Lee said. “Then, if something happens and a company has a run of bad luck and goes under, the general economy can absorb that.”
A joint effort
Both mayors said that sharing Cook had worked well.
“Sterling came to us, and they said, Our chief’s going to retire, and we want to know if we can maybe use Deputy Cook to fill in, ...,” Blanton said. “At the end of the day, I think it worked out well. It worked out financially for both of us.”
Some department heads and employees were concerned that they would not have easy access to Cook, but that was the only drawback he has seen, Blanton said, adding that he has told people that Cook is just a phone call away.
Lee said the success of the shared fire chief confirmed what each mayor already knew:
“Given the right circumstances, given the right people, given the right way of sitting down and talking out what might be impediments or what might be issues and working through those, that the model works.”
Not the right time for 911 dispatch
Lee said he is confident both communities will take a close look at whether combining 911 dispatch services would be beneficial. Whiteside County and Sterling have expressed an interest in doing so.
Blanton said he doesn’t support such a measure now.
“As we see it today, we don’t see it working,” he said. “We don’t see the cost [savings] there. We’re talking $11 million to build a facility and to do those things.”
Blanton said the way dispatch operates now is better for the entire community.
“It has to be something that we all feel is in the best interest of all of us,” he said. “If you have one dispatch center, and something happens to that dispatch center, what do you do? Right now you’ve got three. Something happens in Sterling, you’ve got Rock Falls.”
Blanton also said many towns can’t afford to take on additional projects now because of the lack of funds, he said.
He and the city council would consider supporting a joint dispatch if there was a reason to change, Blanton said.
“As Mayor Lee says, we agree to disagree sometimes on what’s going on,” he said.
If the proposal makes sense, it will stand the test of time, Lee said, and ultimately will be put in place.
Blanton said BioPro Power is an example of a new way to boost the area’s economy.
The company wants build a plant in Rock Falls that would convert cornstalk and other plant leftovers into electrical power. The plan depends on whether BioPro can find customers to buy its product.
“Right now, there’s an overabundance of power, so that means power is cheaper,” Blanton said.
Blanton said he would visit Springfield in the new few weeks to ask legislators to help push the project forward.
The mayor of Rock Falls also said he meets regularly with Congressman Bobby Schilling, R-Colona, to talk about economic development in the area.
Blanton said a job in Rock Falls benefits the entire community.
Part of Longworth’s premise in “Caught in the Middle” is that local communities no longer compete with one another; they compete with cities around the world.
Lee said the Twin Cities and others can’t afford not to work together. He also said cooperation between the towns is nothing new.
Blanton said his first priority is bringing jobs to the community. But that’s not all he wants.
“The second part is, I don’t want to lose who we are,” he said. “I don’t want to be Chicago. There’s people that come here because this is what they want.”
Lee, too, said he doesn’t want to lose the flavor of the area – “the municipal band on Wednesday nights in the summer, being able to go out in my backyard and see the Northern lights when they are out, which I couldn’t do when I went to my son’s place in Chicago. ...”
“The one thing that I see that we’re stressing is, we need to think outside the box.
“My dream is that people will look at the Sauk Valley area and see: Here’s a place where they’re willing to look outside the box.”
Lee again emphasized the need to diversify. He cited development along the riverfront as potential for growth in the area.
On the topic of school mergers, Blanton and Lee both said those decisions should be left to school superintendents. Blanton added that families move into certain school districts because they like those areas.
Lee agreed, saying people are very loyal to school districts.
‘One community of two cities’
The two men appeared comfortable with each other, sitting side by side during the interview. Lee said he has used Blanton as an example of how to be a mayor.
“When I talk to Mayor Blanton or vice versa, we can lay it on the table as we see it,” Lee said. “We can express our opinions, knowing that the other one will accept it in the spirit that it’s being offered.
“We ought to have it at the entrance to both our cities: We are one community of two cities. We’re a family.”
Blanton said some people in both towns will remain convinced there should be a divide between the two. That’s not something that will change overnight, he said.
“Now, are we going to change that?” he said. “We’re going to try, but we’re not silly enough to sit here and think that him and I are going to say: ‘OK, that’s it, no more of this.’
“It’s not going to happen, and we understand that. But the big picture is ... yes, we’re one.”
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