Freeport, Illinois — It’s like the scene of an Al Pacino movie where one day the mob moves into town and before you know the city is full of gangsters running around all over the place. You know how the scene goes. Everything goes fine and dandy for a while until one day, the gangsters get greedy and decide they need more power and more money and before you know it good people, even brothers, start getting snuffed out left and right.
In the past 2 months in Freeport that’s just about what it has felt like as 4 community development leaders have either been fired, forced out or have resigned from their positions, held both in the city of Freeport and in the county.
Those positions are;
- Freeport Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director – Tiffany King.
- Head of Small Business Collaborative – Brian Borger
- Executive Director Stephenson County Visitors Bureau – Connie Sorn
- Marketing Directory (a5, Collaborate Freeport) – Blake Musser
Blake Musser was the first to leave (get fired or persuaded out of) his $80,000 year cushy “All In” job he had just gotten in March of 2017. Poor guy hadn’t even been on the job a year.
Eight days after the announcement of Musser leaving, it was said in an article that Freeport City Manager Lowell Crow attended a conference and apparently noticed at that time how other communities are structuring their economic development efforts. A task force was said to have been put together at that time (comprised of who no one has said) to discuss the possibility of merging the Stephenson County Visitors Bureau, Freeport Chamber of Commerce, Freeport Downtown Development Foundation and Northwest Illinois Development Alliance into one entity directed by a single president.
Whether Crow actually discovered this new way of community development structuring (or if it was suggested to him by other means), we don’t know but there seems to be a much bigger path here to follow.
First, the Freeport Chamber of Commerce is self-funded. Why a city manager would suggest that a self-funded organization merge under one president (with taxpayer funded organizations) seems like a strange request. Currently the city of Freeport contributes about $500,000 a year to NIDA, FDDF, and the Visitors Bureau.
But let’s go back a little further.
In May of 2017 Amy Fairweather, along with newly hired All In marketing director Blake Musser and Evan Talbert, were appointed by Freeport Mayor Jodi Miller to the Stephenson County Convention and Visitors Bureau board.
To give you a little background, NIDA essentially brought a5, (the Chicago based company behind Collaborate Freeport, Freeport All In and All In Freeport) to the Freeport table back in December of 2015. Amy Fairweather works closely with a5 and was part of that introduction to NIDA. It is worthy to note here also that the contract for the executive director of NIDA, Dave Young, is up for renewal and that Dave Young is set to retire at the end of June 2018.
To really get a better idea of what might be happening here though, you have to go back to that December 2015 time frame and take a much deeper look. Before we do though, it’s important to have an understanding what community development is, and what it isn’t.
Much of community development says give us the money first and here’s what we hope to bring you. Here’s our new new idea. It may not come, it may not even happen but give us the money anyway. Their angle is promote the ‘concept’ to get the money. Who knows if they can pull it off or if anything will ever come of it.
They all make up a long line of efforts over the years who have had ideas, done studies, held meetings, did a drawing, laid out a plan, given out ice cream and in many cases, were all paid along the way to do so.
Let’s look at an overview going back to December of 2015
December 2015 – City Centre Receives $140,000 Tax Dollars
Posted Dec 11, 2015 A group of local people spearheaded by Freeport Area Church Cooperative Director Dean Wright start City Centre Freeport.
- A vision they hope will restore the heart of Freeport to a vibrant, varied neighborhood that serves both city residents and visitors from the greater northwest Illinois region.
- What is proposed is said to focus on economic growth and development.
- NIDA pledges $10,000 a year for three years toward the project and agrees to help manage the project.
- City Centre seeks $5,000 in support from the Chamber of Commerce, Freeport Downtown Development Foundation and the Freeport/Stephenson County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
- City Centre says $120,000 will help fund studies and assessments and help finance a revolving loan fund.
- City Centre says they would like to establish a $1 million revolving loan fund the second half of 2016 or early 2017.
- The revolving loan would be funded through bond sales; the bond debts would be repaid through TIF revenue.
- Money from local governments and agencies is to go toward a small-business collaborative fund. As project manager, NIDA
December 19, 2015 – Chicago Based A5, Inc. Enters Scene, Hopes To Raise $100,000 Or More
NIDA and a5 leaders approach local government and community groups to raise $100,000 or more for a multi-year effort. They state the effort would revisit and build on previous development efforts such as the 2010 comprehensive plan, 2012 Prospering Together and the new City Centre Freeport effort to revitalize downtown Freeport. The article says, “We don’t know what Freeport’s story is,” Harris said, emphasizing that the “story” needs to be real and authentic. “That’s what we would create.” Promote Woodstock is used an item in their portfolio, stating the Facebook page for Real Woodstock has about 1,000 followers.
December 21, 2015 – City Centre to use $120,000 from Downtown TIF
City Centre says they’ll use $120,000 money from Freeport’s downtown tax increment financing district to help cover costs associated with writing adaptive re-use legislation, a downtown building condition analysis and a small-business development collaborative, among other projects.
February 17, 2016 – Chicago Based A5, Inc. At $95,000 From Community – Park District Gives $10,000
- First sentence of the article is the money raised has increased to $95,000 after the Freeport Park commissioners pledged $10,000 toward the $125,000 goal.
- Freeport School District #145 votes against supporting the effort.
March 2016 – City Contribution of $20,000 In Tax Dollars Pushes A5, Inc. To $143,000
City’s contribution pushes first year total past the $125,000 goal. Stated that now the project can continue into the next phase, which includes data collection from the community.
April 18, 2016 – City Centre Receives $120,000 Tax Dollars
City approves the maximum sum of One Hundred & Twenty Thousand Dollars ($120,000) in Increment to further the goals of the Plan and the City Centre Initiative.
August 2016 – Collaborate Freeport Deciding Which Marketing Tools To Use
Aug. 17, 2016 Collaborate Freeport say rebranding essential to revitalization, says the group has to decide which marketing tools to use to promote fresh branding. A marketing plan could be implemented as early as next month and could focus on the city.
October 29, 2016 – City Centre Provides 20 Page Report
City Centre research unveiling on Nov. 14 City Centre says they are ready to showcase their 20-page report at the Committee of the Whole meeting Nov. 14. The report will detail all six of City Centre’s initiatives, including the fact-finding work done by Fehr Graham, Fye and Associates and Winter Design.
November 4, 2016 – Collaborate Freeport Says They’ve Raised $127,000
Nov. 4, 2016 $127,000 raised by Collaborate Freeport. Says campaign will be launched by the use of billboards and other information spread all over Freeport They state through this collaboration they can build on economic development, increase tourism and build on our community.
February 4, 2017 – Journal Standard Headline Claims Mayor Candidates “All In”
Feb. 4, 2017 – The first sign of a political / private business alignment between the city of Freeport and the Chicago based company A5 and their brand suggested by the Journal Standard. Freeport mayor candidates ‘All in’
March 24, 2017 – Collaborate Freeport Hires $80k Year Marketing Director
“My wife and I, with our two children, moved back to Freeport from a career in Washington, D.C. We are ‘All In.’ I look forward to working with a5 and all the community partners to spread the word that Freeport is a terrific place to live, work and build a happy life. Says the dual “All In” community brand for Freeport and Stephenson County is designed to increase collaboration and positivity, and to highlight Freeport’s many assets in order to improve economic development, build community.
May 24, 2017 – City Centre Requests Another $140,000
Posted May 24, 2017 City Centre says they have projects to start, but they’re waiting for city officials to act on their funding request.
- $25,000 rolled over from last year’s budget
- States that most of the rolled over money has already been used to hire tax increment financing district consultants.
- States if received plan to upload a building and utility condition analysis into the city’s geographic information system to help the group develop a downtown redevelopment strategy, improve the planning and review of adaptive reuse projects and create a revolving loan fund to make private development in the area more feasible.
- On Feb. 13, City Council approves a $21,000 contract for Ehlers and Associates to help the city plan and implement a strategy for better utilizing TIF funds.
July 21, 2017 – Small Business Collaborative Says First Year Was Successful
Posted Jul 21, 2017 – Says they have a successful first year as their service that aims to attract more small businesses to downtown Freeport and beyond. It is a partnership among the Northwest Illinois Development Alliance.
October 16, 2017 – Freeport Art Museum Receives $250k Contribution
While not in any way a part of public money, it’s just here to show the amount received. Freeport Art Museum, says the non-profit arts organization has received an anonymous $250,000 contribution to be used for the development of a festival space designed to host community events, concerts, art fairs and other outdoor festivals. The Freeport Art Museum was gifted the land by the Freeport Post Office around a decade ago. As a side note, given the secrecy of who actually contributed this money, it is not a far reach to think someone (or a party) already involved in our local community development is behind the giving of this money. $250,000 would make a nice end of year tax write off and how sweet of a deal it would be if that money you gifted, still remained somewhat in your control. In other words, this “gift” may not have been a gift in the sense it has been told to us.
September 17, 2017 – Freeport Art Museum Holds Paint the Port Fundraiser For Facade Improvement
Put on by the Freeport Art Museum, the event was a fundraiser said to be for a facade improvement grant to help renovate select businesses every year. The Freeport Art Museum said they hope to have around $10,000 available to contribute. Modica said that with the city match and the select business match, that could be mean $30,000 of available money for facade improvements.
November 4, 2017 – Connie Sorn Given Lifetime Achievement Award
The Lifetime Achievement award was given to Connie Sorn, executive director of the Freeport/Stephenson County Visitors Bureau. $10,000 raised from the event, which also had a silent auction.
November 15, 2017 – City Manager Proposes Consolidating 4 Economic Development Organizations
Posted Nov 15, 2017 Freeport City Manager Lowell Crow attends a conference and sees how other communities are structuring their economic development efforts. Knows NIDA’s contract is up for renewal and Executive Director Dave Young is set to retire at the end of June 2018. Assembles task force to discuss the possibility of merging the Freeport/Stephenson County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Freeport Area Chamber of Commerce, Freeport Downtown Development Foundation and Northwest Illinois Development Alliance into one entity directed by a single president
The Freeport Chamber of Commerce is a self-funded organization. Crow says the budget for the new entity would be about the same as the combined total of the current organizations’ budgets. The city contributes about $500,000 a year to NIDA, FDDF, and the Visitors Bureau.
November 7, 2017 – Blake Musser Quits (or is fired from) $80,000 Year “All In” Job
After just 8 months as the newly hired marketing director of Freeport All In, Blake Musser quits his job. States that to help get to the next phase, he decided to “make room”.
December 30, 2017 – Edward Finch Warns Against Merging Organizations
Says the proposal to merge several local organizations has more questions than answers. Questions if the Chamber of Commerce will still be free to engage in political discourse.
“NIDA is supposed to work for northwest Illinois, but it will be blended with organizations focused specifically on Freeport and Stephenson County. The CVB’s purview is all of Stephenson County, but it will be blended with organizations focused specifically on downtown Freeport.”
Says the status quo now is that Freeport City Council decides, on behalf of the taxpayers who elect them, where to allocate funding. Under the proposed plan, the city would allocate a lump sum to the mega-organization so that someone not elected by anyone would decide whether funding tourism or economic development or projects in downtown Freeport will have priority.
“Today the Stephenson County Board decides where tax dollars go, and those decisions are made on the basis of what is best for the entire county. Under the proposed mega-organization any funding provided by Stephenson County could be diverted solely for projects in downtown Freeport.”
Says the proposal currently being rushed into operation has too many moving parts to make it either workable or trustworthy.
January 9, 2018 – A5, Inc. CEO John Harris Talks About Free Ice Cream And Surveys
Pens an article still talking about how they saw a line two blocks long showing up for free ice cream and how in two hours they gathered more than 400 surveys from folks young and old, male and female, students and professionals. “Attitude is everything” Harris says. “When you feel good about where you are and where you are going, you can create an environment of positive change. Excitement. Opportunity. You can dream — and achieve.”
January 9, 2018 – Amy Fairweather Cuts To The Chase – “We’ve Raised $436,350”
Fairweather brags about how much money the a5 effort has raised claiming $436,350 to date. Says Collaborate Freeport’s three-year campaign is funded by 86 percent private money.
- $20,000 of the $436,350 is public and has been invested by the Freeport Park District
- $40,000 of $436,350 has been invested via reallocation of the CVB’s budgeted hotel/motel tax.
- $376,350 has been invested by private money.
January 11, 2018 – Executive Director Connie Sorn Abruptly Fired From Visitors Bureau
Two days later, late Wednesday afternoon, Sorn posted on her Facebook page that she is no longer employed by the Visitor Bureau. Sorn told the newspaper that chairman of the CVB board and a Rockford attorney gave her the news around 1 p.m.. In May of 2017 Amy Fairweather, along with newly hired All In marketing director Blake Musser and Evan Talbert were appointed to the Stephenson County Convention and Visitors Bureau board.
January 13, 2018 – Head of Small Business Collaborative Brian Borger Quits
Four days later the newspaper reported that Brian Borger announced that as the head of the Small Business Collaborative, he is leaving his position. The Small Business Collaborative is overseen by NIDA.
January 23, 2018 – Executive Directory of the Freeport Chamber of Commerce Tiffany King Resigns
Fourteen days later Tiffany King announces that she is leaving her position as the Executive Director of the Freeport Chamber of Commerce. She already has another job lined up, which is not even in Freeport any longer.
Looking at the above we don’t see community development here. What we actually see so far is that the A5 “Freeport story” is that they have collected nearly a half a million dollars from us, are on the path to be in control of at least double that amount and more, and for that we’ve lost 4 jobs.
It seems pretty clear, in our opinion, what is happening here.
- First news is Blake Musser of a5, Collaborate Freeport leaves (or is fired)
- After, comes the news that the city is considering merging 4 organizations
- NIDA’s director Dave Young is retiring in June 2018
- On the table is $500,000 a year in free and easy taxpayer money currently given to NIDA, FDDF, and the Visitors Bureau.
To sweeten the pot even more, on the table as well would be all the Freeport Chamber of Commerce local and regional business customers and its income too. Who’s positioned themselves to be in control of it all?
The Chicago based company, a5. (Dean Wright probably isn’t too far hidden in the background of all this either.)
No one leaves their job when things are going so wonderful and growing, especially when you’re so “all in” and everything is so wonderful in your community. Certainly not 4 people within a two month time frame leaving their wonderful, we’re “all in” jobs. You have better odds of winning the lotto.
The absurdity of the news gets even worse though because in an article published yesterday in the Journal Standard, it notes that the Chamber of Commerce joins a list of local organizations looking for new leaders. In other words, 4 of our top level people have just left or have been fired from their positions and the stance amidst talk of merging, is that all of these organizations are looking to re-hire people for these same positions.
Additionally, the odds that at the very same time Blake Musser is let go that the city, on its own, came up with some idea to merge our community development organizations is a real stretch. Seems evident these two organizations were in cahoots prior to Musser being let go and prior to the city announcing its thought to merge organizations. It bears to question then, who really came up with the idea to “merge” these 4 organizations?
Odd too, in Fairweather’s latest article she states that only $20,000 of the money is public money, coming from the Park District. According to NIDA’s website however they did receive $20,000 from the city of Freeport. It’s also in this city council document, stating it was heard, voted on and approved 8-0 by city council. That would mean 18% of their (a5, Collaborate Freeport) funding is public money.
But there are other things like, why are two publicly funded organizations also on the list of “Investing Partners”, as per this screenshot off the 2016 Investor Report from NIDA’s website specifically relating to Collaborate Freeport? According to the FDDF website, for the past several years, (more like a decade or so) FDDF has received $25,000 taxpayer dollars each year to fund their operation. Their website states that it changed to $50,000 after the recession. It goes on to say that there was discussion about changing that funding to $40,000 in 2017, then $20,000 in 2018.
Further, in the first year all Collaborate Freeport did was aggressively promote itself. Their first year timeline below, (as again part of the 2016 Investor Report specifically relating to Collaborate Freeport), shows that all “All In” actually did was promote themselves. We don’t know what they’ve done differently in 2017. The CEO of A5 is still talking about survey’s and giving out ice cream, while Fairweather shows off how much money they have at the precise moment people are losing their jobs.
There are other things to note here too.
Having to survey the public means you don’t understand the public. You don’t know the people you’re even trying to help. We don’t seem to have a problem finding people interested in Freeport or passionate about who we are and what we have here. Freeport News Network had 24 million page views in 2017 and well over a million video views. It had 21 million in the year and a half prior. Today In The Port has over 14,000 followers in that same time as well and we haven’t done one study, ever.
If Freeport News Network had $436,350 the entire landscape of news, fun, stories and positivity in the entire county would change forever. Millions of people would be watching, tuning in and visiting Freeport and Stephenson County.
Blake Musser’s column in November of 2017 stated that the All In website was getting hundreds of visitors and they have half a million dollars and an entire team of people. Hundreds? There’s more people than that in isle 12 and 13 of Freeport’s Walmart right now.
It doesn’t make any sense anyway.
Why do survey’s on us when it’s the people “outside us” you’re trying to attract? Shouldn’t you be doing survey’s on them? That would make more sense. Take stock of what Freeport already has, and find people who would be interested in that “stock” of our town. Why survey us, again for the umpteenth dozen time? If you don’t know us by now you’re never going to know us.
It’s even gotten to the point where the all in folks will criticize you.
One local business owner (who has invested in Freeport, purchased a building and pays sales and property taxes) told us he was in a local establishment having a burger one day after work and in walked one of the all in people with a friend.
He said when they passed him, the all in person stopped and introduced their friend to him saying, hey Susie, this is John. He’s not all in.
So now we have an environment where you might get a snide “you’re all out” remark, in public, inside other local establishments, in front of other people, even as a local small business owner if you don’t fit their selective “all in” point of view. Does a local business and property owner who runs a retail store not qualify for what it takes to be All In?
(In case you’re wondering, we’re sure the business owner who told us this would have no problem confirming his story.) It’s just not the point of the article.
A few other things you should know too.
While we love the mural at Mort’s Bar & Grill in downtown Freeport and have said as much publicly, $5,000 dollars we were told was received through a grant for this project. The artist, Brett Whitacre was said to have been paid $2,500 so the mural actually profited $2,500.
Additionally, the artist lives in Chicago so the $2,500 we did pay out, didn’t stay here either.
What does it say to a community when you have a dozen high schools in the county, a college, dozens of middle schools, graffiti artists all over the place and not one local artist or any art student from any of our schools could be found.
Is that “Freeport” All In?
Now we’re presented with the city talking about merging organizations. Merging into NIDA essentially, the one and only community development organization you never hear any news from and 4 people have already been fired, coerced out or have resigned. As already mentioned, the city contributes about $500,000 a year to NIDA, FDDF, and the Visitors Bureau.
Here is what NIDA listed as accomplishments in 2016.
In a 2015 tax return we found on their website, NIDA’s total revenue for the year was listed at $261,698 of which $201,760 went towards salaries, benefits and other compensation. If NIDA is managing approximately $6.7 million in potential new investment, as well as managing active opportunities totaling $71 million, (both noted above) we’d say that’s a pretty good return on a $261k investment.
But it bears to point out that when MetLife announced their return to Freeport in June of 2017 and said they were bringing 200 jobs back to our city, we wrote them and asked if the city (city government, community development) helped foster or encourage MetLife’s return or had contacted MetLife to help bring about the news.
“We did not receive financial or tax incentives from any state or local entities. Although this was a purely internal MetLife decision, we have enjoyed a good relationship with city and state officials, and having supportive local leadership is certainly one of many factors in our decision to expand in Freeport. In particular, the Northwest Illinois Development Alliance, and their executive director Dave Young, have been a great advocate and resource in the Freeport community.”
Obviously we welcome companies to our area but the main point we’re making is that MetLife brought about MetLife’s return to Freeport. It was a purely internal MetLife decision using their own money.
The government doesn’t create jobs or economic growth. The private sector does. Slogan’s sell cheeseburgers, widgets, insurance and plastic things made in China to us. Slogan’s make companies money, not citizens money.
- If we merge all our community development organizations into NIDA, will companies like MetLife still get the same service such as mentioned above?
- Does Stephenson County think it’s best that a Chicago based private company has access and can decide where all your public marketing funds go?
- With the reduced staff (minus 4 leaders) will we still be able to appeal to a wide audience, manage leads adequately and grow our county?
- Will the folks running the All In show simply tie themselves to the current tourism numbers and use that to say they have brought growth and people to our city?
- What happens after All In leaves, quits, makes their money or isn’t getting paid any longer to do all this? They don’t live here. Then what?
- What has Freeport received for all the money spent already? What’s our return on investment to date?
Freeport has a lot of things to utilize which could draw millions of people here but it can’t see the road in front of itself enough to drive on. Things that have been sitting here for decades. From the entertaining to the provocative, to the strange, heartwarming, odd, successful, humorous and mysterious. Freeport has all the ingredients to shake a nation to say, “I just have to drive to Freeport to see this for myself”. From a marketing perspective, we don’t even use a quarter of it.
We don’t have a problem with good ideas for Freeport or plans to help and benefit the people who live here, we have a problem with ideas for Freeport that cost $700,000+, lose 4 jobs, where a large part of that money goes to Chicago and the only thing it has to show for itself is its own logo plastered all over our town and a few videos and studies.
That’s not community development, that’s a ripoff. Remember, their entire premise is to change the “perception” of our town. That’s not a far reach from the “perception” of actually accomplishing anything as they collect hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe millions now from our city.
And where are all our elected community officials and leaders in all this?
Silent. No one is saying a word.
While it bears to note there is nothing wrong with consolidating, cutting costs, expenses and operating as lean and mean as you can, who acts this way in the midst of such great things to come for our city? Why so silent if this is so great for everyone? The more important question is who’s going to be in control of the money here, and what is Freeport (or our county) really ever going to see out of this?
At present, none of this feels like community development. It feels more like a gang snuffing people out, here to take your money, sell you false hope, bully those they don’t like and help themselves and their buddies to the pot of gold along the way. This is about money.
Everyone knows All In has a half a million dollars now. We know that the Freeport Art Museum was gifted $250,000, City Centre Freeport collected $260,000, we know there’s Facade money to be given out to downtown business, (paint the port) and we know soon there will be hundreds of thousands more available to these same folks.
So we’ll all see won’t we.
We’ll see once again if the people of Freeport actually get anything out of this, or if the people of Freeport and Stephenson County are just getting sold tickets to the big show of hope, once again.
Either way just make no mistake Freeport. People are making hundreds of thousands of dollars here.
It just isn’t Freeport making the money, it’s Freeport paying the money and it sure seems clear to us that it is a Chicago based private company who stands to capitalize the most out of all of this.
As always, we welcome your comments and thoughts.