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What's really going on with the Barber-Colman deal: A call to action


In the history of my time in Rockford, which is approximately 35 years, I can remember very few projects that have elicited this type of polarizing response from the aldermen and constituents alike. People that all used to be on the same team are fighting from places of passion, both believing they are correct, and neither admitting defeat. The rhetoric has gotten so damaging that one alderman has made a statement on the NextDoor site for her ward that non-union workers are undocumented and “working all around us”, changing an already contentious battle into one with overtones of racism, which is disappointing at best. At the end of the day, one side will prevail, and the other will eventually have to accept the outcome. But today…we still have time to change the course of history.


I have followed this project since 2002 when the City of Rockford acquired the Barber Colman complex. The expansive, 10- building structure sits on 24 acres in the southwest side of Rockford where residents of the 5th Ward have patiently waited for the 1 compound to be either redeveloped or demolished, as it has a litany of environmental issues that will no longer allow for the building to sit vacant. For over twenty years, they have watched the blight in their ward grow with each passing moment; to date, they have seen four prior firms attempt to redevelop the site, only to have the deals ultimately fail.  Currently, J. Jeffers, a developer from Wisconsin, is proposing a $420.35 million plan to transform the dilapidated structures into lofts, new townhomes, apartments, small commercial businesses, and retail storefronts. To say this project would be transformational to the city is a gross understatement.

 

To catch the reader up to speed: On June 20, 2023, J. Jeffers gave a presentation to City Council, and a development agreement was introduced for consideration. The motion passed through Planning & Development and was ultimately brought before City Council on July 10th for a full vote. That evening, Alderman Logemann introduced an amendment on the council floor requiring that “the developer will sign a Project Labor Agreement acceptable to the Northwestern Illinois Building Trades covering construction to be performed on the project.”  The vote was hotly debated, and ultimately prevailed at a 7-6 vote in favor of amending the agreement to include a mandatory PLA. Due to this change, the developer was no longer willing or able to continue negotiations with the City, and the development agreement was removed from voting consideration. The developer stated the change in the timing of having to negotiate a PLA with the Northwestern Building Trades union would too heavily impact their timeline, impacting supply chain availability and jeopardizing their external funding sources. Beyond these issues, the Letter of Intent from the Northwestern Building Trades to J. Jeffers also stated that work shall not commence on the project until negotiations had been completed, further pushing out the completion date, and compounding the impact on the material sourcing and financial stack. Without a development for this land, the City is now going to be forced to continue the path to demolish the properties and turn it into green space, which comes with a price tag of $16-18 million. The City cost to redevelop under the proposed agreement would have been between $0-$6.5 million.

 

There have been many impassioned speeches on both sides of this argument. There is no doubt that ultimately, everyone would like to see this be a successful project. There, however, seems to be a significant gap in the definition of what will make this a successful project. One of the most major points I can make to you is this: Not entering into a PLA is not an anti-union stance. 


No one is arguing that the unions are not a vital part of the fabric of the workforce. This issue has crossed party lines resulting in aldermen, city staff, and administration who have a proven track record of both supporting and receiving support from the union being in favor of the project moving forward without a mandate of a project labor agreement. Currently, the developer is utilizing between 60-70% of a union workforce. The percentage was previously higher, but a union firm that was committed to the project stepped away due to the uncertainty of the project scheduling if a PLA was introduced. The developer reached out to over 70 union firms to bid the work; of that, under 40 opened the email, and of those 40, only one firm bid the work with a final number that was double the original firm’s cost. The developer was asking for the flexibility of utilizing non-union labor for the remaining percentage of the work to keep the project moving in a forward trajectory.  

  

We had a chance to change the entire landscape of the southwest side of Rockford and again, we seem to have fallen before the finish line. On July 10th, when Aldermen Logemann read in his proposed amendment on the council floor, he asserted that this was not a last-minute change, as he had been in conversations with the Building Trades since “mid-June.” The developer has been working with the City and local engineering firms on this project since approximately February 2022. The development agreement was presented to the Planning & Development committee on June 20, 2023, and unanimously passed to full Council for consideration without mention of a PLA from the aldermen. This directly contradicts Alderman Logemann’s comments that this is not a last-minute change to the agreement that had been in negotiations for well over a year. On July 10th, the day that City Council was supposed to vote on the proposed development agreement, the Northwestern Building Trades Unions met with J. Jeffers with a Letter of Intent (LOI) to continue negotiating the PLA in “good faith”, however the content of the Letter of Intent stated the previously mentioned stop work clause during negotiations, thereby continuing to put the project in jeopardy. When you boil down to the heart of the LOI vs PLA amendment, either the developer would essentially have been signing a stop work order in the form of a LOI, or the developer would be mandated to stop work when the amendment that passed mandated a PLA be negotiated.

 

The Northwestern Building Trades Unions released a statement asserting this “good faith” effort was due to worker safety, protecting the taxpayers’ investment, and stronger women and

minority language.  I’ll take them one point at a time:


·      Worker’s Safety: Per the development agreement, the developer shall “at all times acquire, install, construct, operate, and maintain the Project in conformance with ALL applicable laws, rules, ordinances, and regulations”. This includes OSHA safety compliance and oversight, ensuring ALL contractors, regardless of their union affiliation, follow the proper safety guidelines and legislation.


·      Taxpayers’ Investment: This is perhaps the most frustrating of the points. The last-minute addition of this amendment knowingly and foreseeably was not made with the best interest of the taxpayer at heart. The aldermen and Building Trades were aware that this amendment would essentially kill the deal. At the City Council meeting on July 10th, City Administrator Cagnoni was directly asked if this amendment would be a deal-breaker, and he very clearly asserted that it would be. I know I’ve thrown a lot of numbers and facts at you, but here’s the simple math: for the cost of $0-$6.5 million at a 60-70% union utilization rate, the City of Rockford (specifically the residents of the 5th Ward) would have a $420 million dollar development featuring lofts, new townhomes, apartments, small commercial businesses, and retail storefronts. Without a development agreement, and for the taxpayer price tag of $18 million, we will have some grass.  Full stop.


·      Stronger Women and Minority Language:  As a PLA does not currently exist for the Barber Colman project, I will refer to the recently negotiated PLA for the Hard Rock Casino project:

  

ARTICLE XX- UNDERSERVED COMMUNITIES

20.1 The undersigned Unions agree to cooperate and coordinate best efforts with Contractor to expand outreach in an effort to attract members of underserved communities, including racial minorities, veterans and women, for construction related positions pursuant to this Agreement. Such efforts are anticipated to include advertising (online, print and other media), job fairs, website(s), and

working with outside organizations dedicated to community outreach, including notification of apprenticeship enrollment periods.


Below you will find the verbiage from the proposed development agreement as presented at City Council:


D. Locally-Sourced and Prevailing Wage. The Parties acknowledge that an economic development goal of the Project is to capitalize on the creation of opportunities for Minorities, Women, Persons with Disability, Veterans, City Residents. Local Businesses (MBEs. WBEs, DBEs, and VBEs) regarding both the construction and operations of the Project and employment related to the Project. Developer agrees to use its Best Efforts during construction of the Project to maximize utilization of Local Sourcing, Business, MBEs, WBEs, DBEs and VBEs: in particular minority and women owned enterprises by soliciting proposals from these groups through the construction bid and purchasing process To the extent that it is financially and operationally feasible these local services and products will be utilized in connection with the Project. The Developer estimates the current number of minority and women owned businesses engaged in the construction of Phase 1A process is between 20-30%. Developer shall keep full and complete records of its best efforts and provide to the City at the completion of each phase or portion thereof. All such records shall be reasonably maintained in accordance with its common business practice record retention policies and shall be made available for reasonable inspection by the City. Developer shall construct the Project in compliance with the Prevailing Wage Act (for purposes of this Section, the Prevailing Wage Act) of the State of Illinois, 820 ILCS 130/0 01 et seq as amended.”


The assertion that a PLA can or will establish guidelines to ensure better minority representation versus a development agreement without this mandate is historically inaccurate. Both agreements seem to offer very similar provisions, with the development agreement citing the targeted assumption for the current phase of the project. Further, the proclamations that the labor under the PLA would be 100% local is a misguided notion, as the Northwestern Building Trades Union covers eight counties in the Northern Illinois area, and not exclusively Rockford or Winnebago County. Further, J. Jeffers has agreed to pay all workers Illinois Prevailing Wage rates (unless superseded by Davis-Bacon Wages for federal projects).  Prevailing Wage rates are predetermined hourly rates and fringe benefits that a contractor or subcontractor is required to pay to all laborers, workers, and mechanics who perform work on public works projects.  The Act also sets forth the record keeping requirements for a contractor or subcontractor and sets for the obligations of municipalities and other public bodies to establish the wage rates, as well as communicate any changes to the rates in writing.  If this Act is not being followed on a project where they are required, the Department of Labor will take immediate action upon notification of noncompliance. 


This argument is not about whether unions are beneficial. It’s about TRULY serving the portion of our community that has difficulty meeting the requirements to be considered middle class. It’s about bringing in over $108 million dollar increase in residential spending to the area and 2700+ jobs to the area. It’s about bringing a project to a largely minority populated area of the city which would have DIRECT impact on 100% of their day to day lives, and not just those that are paid members of a construction company. It would be about keeping the best interest of the people of Rockford at heart by acknowledging the people who live here, and not just those that work here.


I encourage everyone to step back and consider the picture from a wholistic point of view. The 5th Ward deserves better, and I hope they have your support. The call to action is VITAL and needs to occur before 4:30pm today, Monday July 17, 2023. Please visit https://rockfordil.gov/516/About-the-City-Council to find your alderman’s contact information and be an advocate for your community by supporting this project development agreement without an amendment for a Project Labor Agreement. We need a member of the 7 aldermen that voted in favor of this amendment to call it back to the council floor tonight for a reconsideration vote. I would like to thank all of the City staff, aldermen, and citizens alike that have rallied together for this transcendent project. Thank you for being a part of helping truly transform Rockford.


-Christina Valdez, 3rd Ward Resident

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