One of the “Most Miserable Cities” in the U.S. mounts a comeback

Washington, D.C. Hannah Sawyer March 1, 2019 The Network

Rockford, Illinois, was once known as the “screw capital of the world,” an industrial powerhouse in the 1970s and ’80s that produced billions of screws, bolts, and fasteners for manufacturers around the globe. But over the past 20 years, the city — where good-paying jobs straight out of high school were once plentiful — has struggled with long-term economic decline. The issues cut so deeply that in 2013 “Forbes” gave Rockford a dubious distinction as one of the most miserable places to live in the country.

Mayor Thomas McNamara would be the first to admit Rockford has some big problems. His first day on the job a little over a year ago brought him face-to-face with public safety issues, deteriorating public infrastructure, and a $156 million, eight-year budget deficit.

However, the headlines don’t tell the whole story, he says. Over the years, dedicated members of the community have been reinvesting in Rockford, even when the picture looked bleak. Now with the help of the National Resource Network, a consortium of experts who work hand-in-hand with city governments to tackle serious financial issues, McNamara and others hope to change how people view the city.

“I think the next five years will tell us a lot about who we will be and what we can be,” he said in December.

The National Resource Network was formed by the Obama administration following the 2008 recession to help rebuild areas of the country that were particularly hard hit by the stock market collapse. However, when Executive Director David Eichenthal and his team arrived in some of the most distressed cities in the United States, they found many of their problems had been exacerbated by the recession, not caused by it. Long-running financial problems were leading to “literally death by 10,000 cuts” in forgotten places dotting the country from coast to coast, Eichenthal said.

McNamara had a reason to be optimistic as 2018 drew to a close: The Rockford mayor was celebrating the recent passage of the next budget. For the first time in 20 years, Rockford would enter the next year with a surplus, which McNamara and the council planned to apply to projected future deficits. And the city had already begun working on its 2020 budget.

Before now, “we never focused on anything but the year right ahead of us,” McNamara said.

During the roughly five years the Network has been around, it has worked with more than 50 cities; Arnold Ventures has funded their efforts in nine of those cities, including Danville and Rockford. Eichenthal and his staff have become staunch believers in the idea that recovery is possible for cities that were written off long ago.

“I do this because I think these places matter, and I think the people in these places matter,” he says.

Rockford is no longer the world’s screw capitol, but it has reestablished itself as a national aviation repair hub. It has seen a double-digit drop in violent crime — all while cutting the eight-year projected budget deficit to under $80 million, thanks to help from the Network. McNamara, the son of a former Rockford mayor, hopes this is the beginning of a long comeback for the city.