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City needs more retail, candidates say

Both say mayor plays key role in attracting development

ROCK FALLS – When it comes to attracting jobs, both candidates for Rock Falls mayor said they want to see more of what the city already has – small business, factories and stores that employ small groups of people.

Incumbent Mayor David Blanton said the city is already home to a dozen factories. While they are not 1,000-employee factories each, they have remained strong in the city, he said.

City Clerk Bill Wescott, Blanton's opponent in the April 9 election, said the city could benefit from more retail businesses to keep shoppers in Rock Falls.

Both candidates also said the mayor plays an important role in attracting economic development and business.

Blanton said he meets regularly with local industry leaders.

When it comes to retail shops, the biggest problem the city faces is a lack of available property, Blanton said. Officials have struggled to get property owners on the south end of town to agree on affordable prices for prospective developers, he said.

As an example of positive movement, he pointed to Sterling couple Raul and Jackie Molina's decision to demolish three buildings on West Second Street to make way for a a bar and grill.

"I think our biggest advantage in Rock Falls is the fact that we own all our own utilities," the mayor added.

When a prospective business wants to come to town, developers meet with the mayor and department heads, Blanton said. That way, if they need to move a water hydrant, for example, the appropriate department head can respond immediately.

"We don't have to get a hold of American Water and go through the paperwork, it'd be another month or two," he said. "We don't have to get a hold of Commonwealth Edison, go around with them. That's a big, big, advantage."

Blanton said his role in economic development is to promote the city's infrastructure to prospective businesses and developers who may want to locate in the city. He works closely with Sandy Henrekin, director of the Rock Falls Community Development Corp., to stay up to speed on possible development.

Asked if he has the skills to bring jobs to Rock Falls, Blanton said he "goes by his record."

"I see a bright future for us," Blanton said. "We've got a lot going on here."

Wescott said he doesn't see the city becoming an industrial or manufacturing hot spot.

"If we can continue to develop retail and service, and you get 20 or less employees at each one of those places, those are positive things," Wescott said. "You have to look at those as victories because the other option is, those businesses, small retail and services go somewhere else or close up."

He said the city should consider annexing property on the south end to grow.

He also would like to see more retail development in town, such as clothing stores.

"How much money do the city of Rock Falls residents give to Sterling through retail opportunities that are over there that are not over here?" Wescott said. "They have the retail that our people need."

More stores would bring valuable sales tax revenue, and would attract people from neighboring communities such as Walnut and Tampico, he said.

But in order to bring new businesses, the city needs to sell the community with the resources it offers, Wescott said.

"We have access by road; we have shovel-ready land available; we have our own utilities," he said. "We just need to get the right businesses in here, match up with them and work with them."

He also pointed to opportunities for companies to benefit through the Whiteside County Enterprise Zone and the downtown tax increment financing district.

The mayor should be involved in economic development, but no one person, including the mayor, can accomplish the task on his own, Wescott said.

"It's a team effort," he said. "That's what my campaign is a lot about, is building a team effort here ... we have a lot of individual things going on. We need to bring them together because I think we would have a stronger, unified front than everybody working independently."

More coverage to come

This article is part of a series examining where the two Rock Falls mayoral candidates stand on key issues. An upcoming article will examine how they plan to meet the city's infrastructure needs.

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