A red X, which marks vacant buildings with structural damage, is displayed Thursday, July 13, 2023, on a fence around the Barber-Colman factory complex. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)
By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — Gary Anderson said he got a phone call Tuesday morning that halted his company’s work designing portions of Colman Yards, the future mix of residences and businesses proposed to revamp the blighted Barber-Colman factory.

Studio GWA, a Rockford architecture firm, had been working with Milwaukee-based J. Jeffers & Co. to design Building 5, the hulking building with broken windows that is most prominent on the complex along South Main Street.

“They sent us notice to provide final billing and to cease and desist doing any more work on the other buildings they had contracted us for,” Anderson said Thursday in an interview outside the former factory. “We had completed Building No 5, which went out for bid, and we were working on other buildings.”

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The work was halted after City Council members on Monday voted 7-6 to require developers to reach a deal with organized labor in order for the project to move forward with financial assistance from the city. City Hall had warned aldermen such a vote could kill the deal.

In the days that have followed, activists, City Council members, union members, a state representative and other advocates have searched for a path for the project to move forward.

“We’re hoping to see continued conversation with J. Jeffers for a project that we’re all extremely hopeful and excited about. We think this is a game-changer for the community,” said Brad Long, business representative for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 792. “We just want all the workers, whether they’re union or non-union, to be represented.”

Proponents of a project labor agreement, which is a form of collective bargaining between unions and developers, say it provides for greater worker safety, ensures skilled laborers handle the job and guarantees no work stoppages so that the project can be delivered on time and on budget.

Opponents have said mandating the labor agreement would strip developers of negotiating power with the unions because the project could not move forward without union permission. They also said it could hamper the developer’s commitment to hiring minority- and women-owned contractors. But most importantly, they argued it would kill the deal because J. Jeffers had agreements with its financing agencies in hand that don’t take the PLA into account, and that could add extra time and money to the project.

“We do enough projects that we understand what the pro formas are, and the difficulty of making these projects work, especially right now with the rising interest rates, the inflation that’s been going on and the uncertainty of even delivery that will delay the opening of your building,” Anderson said. “These are all huge risks that the developer is taking.”

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Long said local unions want to see the labor agreement, whether it’s mandated or not.

The Northwestern Illinois Building Trades Council reiterated that sentiment Thursday, when it revealed that it had offered J. Jeffers a letter of intent on Monday before the vote to continue negotiating a project labor agreement. It said when J. Jeffers did not sign the letter, the trades continued to push for the mandated PLA.

“If they had agreed to continue negotiations in good faith, we would have asked for the amendment to be withdrawn,” the Building Trades Council said in a statement.

The council also countered arguments about minority and women representation. It said its proposed project labor agreement goes further than the developer to expand the role of women and minorities in the workforce.

“The Colman Yards project needs to have a diverse workforce that is representative of our community,” it said in a statement.

The city of Rockford has owned the former Barber-Colman manufacturing complex since 2002. It’s shown on Thursday, July 13, 2023. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

State Rep. Maurice West, a Democrat who represents Rockford’s 67th District, said he tried to broker a deal between labor and J. Jeffers without the City Council mandate.

“I was working behind the scenes to keep that vote from happening and I came up short,” he said.

Now, he said he has taken a couple days to let the “shell shock” of Monday’s vote wear off.

“We just need emotions to dampen first and see if there’s opportunity to come back to the table,” West said. “I’m in shell shock still. I need some time to regroup myself. I know they do, too. So we can figure this out.”

“I plan on being hopeful and persistent.”

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Advocates for south Rockford have been persistent, too. On Thursday, members of SWIFTT, Transform Rockford, the Coalition of Latino Leaders and other south Rockford residents called a news conference to push for City Council members to rethink their decision and create a path for the project to go forward.

“We’re not trying to fight politics,” said Pastor Ruby Martin of A Ministry of Restoration church. “We’re not into politics, we’re into families.”

Martin has lived in the area since her home was built there in 1973. She said the proposed $420 million redevelopment of the decrepit factory into nearly 1,000 living units and 130,000-square-feet of commercial space “will be a light in this area, and not a sore thumb.”

“When you hear people think that there’s no hope and something will never happen, something has happened,” Martin said. “A door has swung open wide and big.”

Armando Cardenas of the Coalition of Latino Leaders said he’d never seen this type of investment proposed in south Rockford until now.

“Since I’ve been in Rockford, I’ve seen administrations come and go with the city. I’ve seen council members, councilwomen, come and go. Unfortunately, I have not seen too many good things that have come from the City Council to the southwest,” Cardenas said. “Today, we have an opportunity.”

Victor Rivera speaks at a news conference Thursday, July 13, 2023, at the Barber-Colman complex about a developer’s $420 million proposal to rehabilitate the property. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

Victor Rivera’s family has deep ties to south Rockford. He’s lived and volunteered in the neighborhood for years, and his daughter, Mila Rose, is depicted on a mural just about a block away from Barber-Colman on South Main Street.

“This proposal, that I’ve read, is so thorough, so cohesive, so well put-together that a regular guy like me, a blue-collar worker, can understand it,” he said. “(I) can clearly see that this is the best thing that can possibly happen in this side of town and for Rockford, for all the wards.”

There are potential paths forward that have emerged this week. Alderman Mark Bonne, who was one of the people behind the push for a labor deal, said he would present a motion to reconsider. He doesn’t plan to switch his vote, but he felt it was fair to make sure Alderwoman Janessa Wilkins, who was absent from Monday’s meeting due to a family emergency, got a chance to represent her ward with a vote.

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Anderson, the architect who has been a champion of historic preservation for decades, fears the damage may already be done. He said other developers may take note before considering Rockford.

He said J. Jeffers has already spent about $3 million on this property, and City Council’s vote “sends a clear message that Rockford is not open for business.”

“What we have done is basically strangled ourselves, and by our own hands, and that’s unacceptable,” Anderson said.

The proposed project labor agreement doesn’t require 100% of the workers to be union. However, any non-union workers on the project would have to follow the terms of the agreement.

“So the unions aren’t just fighting for union members,” Long said. “We’re fighting for everybody in our community to make sure that they have a living wage, which they should be on this job that’s got local tax dollars in it.”

Developers have already agreed to pay all workers the prevailing wage, which is the state’s required wage on public projects that typically mirrors union rates.

Rudy Valdez, president of SWIFTT, speaks Thursday, July 13, 2023, at a news conference about the proposed changes to the Barber-Colman complex. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

Rudy Valdez, the president of SWIFTT, a business advocacy group for southwest Rockford, picked away at one argument in favor of the labor deal: that it protects the middle class.

“That sounds very admirable, but if you look at it in the context of this that means it’s to keep the status quo,” Valdez said during a news conference Thursday at Barber-Colman. “The majority of the people here are not middle class. They’d love to be middle class. Let’s go ahead and do both. Let’s raise everybody up to the middle class and then protect the middle class.”

Valdez, a former union electrician, said he hopes negotiations aren’t halted. But he said the project labor agreement should be reached through negotiations between the developer and unions, not through a City Council mandate.

“Don’t stop this project,” he said. “Keep on working in good faith. That’s the best thing.”

This article is by Kevin Haas. Email him at khaas@rockrivercurrent.com or follow him on Twitter at @KevinMHaas or Instagram @thekevinhaas and Threads @thekevinhaas

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