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Sterling/Rock Falls: Two Cities, One Community

Our occasional series "Community Close-Up" continues in Sterling/Rock Falls. City leaders on both sides of the Rock River are building on the theme "Two Cities, One Community."

School pride isn't the only dividing line between these two cities, but Rock Falls Mayor Bill Wescott says things are changing.

"When I went to coffee shops [people said] 'glad to see you guys talking. That should have been done a long time ago. There are so many things we can all benefit from,' " Wescott said. "We hear that now. Before I think people had the same feelings, but, whether it was leadership or whether it was just the 'old school' people, whatever it was."

Credit WNIJ
(left) Sterling Mayor Skip Lee (right) Rock Falls Mayor Bill Wescott

Sterling Mayor Skip Lee also sees the culture is changing.

"Even when there have been challenges, the cities have been working together.  What Mayor Wescott and I have done is maybe heighten the conversation about why that's good, and why we need to do that and visibly show that in our actions."

Wescott and Lee were friends before they both took office. That may be a major reason the two see eye to eye on many things that could benefit both communities.

"Timing Is Everything"

That includes the recent merging of administrative duties for the cities' fire departments. It was made possible in part by the retirement of a longtime chief. Sterling Mayor Skip Lee says the decision wasn't rushed.

"Timing is everything. You don't want to force anything," Lee said. "We will look for other opportunities as they arise. Some parts of the cities, you are looking at not only changing the structure, but you are looking at changing the culture- and that has to be at the right time."

Rock Falls Mayor Bill Wescott agrees.

"I think that, if we keep our ear to the rail and listen to what our people tell us and try to do these things, that will help both our communities advance, Sterling/Rock Falls will be good in the future," Wescott said.

Mayor Lee says attracting new businesses is a prime area where competition should be put aside.

"If he gets a 5,000 man factory, whoopee, wahoo, I will jump up and down," Lee said. "One of the most important streets in Sterling, Illinois is First Avenue Rock Falls because, coming from the interstate, if First Avenue Rock Falls is not developed, they are not going to come to Sterling."

I-88 West Branding

Heather Sotelo is the Executive Director of the Greater Sterling Development Corporation. She says thinking regionally is better for attracting new businesses.

"Sterling's competition is not Rock Falls and Rock Falls competition is not Sterling. Any people who look at it like that or even think that way are kidding themselves. Our competition is DeKalb. The I-88 corridor area they have out there. Our competition is Rockford. Our competition is the Quad Cities."

Credit WNIJ
(left) Heather Sotelo (right) Sandy Henrekin

Sandy Henrekin is Executive Director of the Rock Falls Community Development Corporation. They often travel to conferences together under the umbrella of the "I-88 West" branding.

"Get their attention for the area and then that's when they will start to hone in and separately look at the different communities," Henrekin said.

Riverfront Development

The cities are at different stages in their long-term plans for riverfront development, but both agree quality of life is becoming more important to attracting new companies and residents. Henrekin says that includes downtown restaurants and bike paths along the river:

"Whereas 10 to 15 years ago maybe our organizations wouldn't have been so concerned about working so hard on the riverfronts," Henrekin said. "I think it is going to change a lot for our community as far as quality of life and then ultimately I think it's going to change our economy."

Rock Falls Riverfront Development Plan

Sterling Riverfront Development Plan

Leaders in Sterling and Rock Falls are becoming more open to bridging not only the river that separates them but also longstanding rivalries as well. Their hope is that residents are ready to follow suit.

What's Next:

In part two, we'll hear how Sterling and Rock Falls firefighters are working together to share resources. We'll also talk with the district's education leaders about collaboration opportunities. 

About Community Close-Up

The WNIJ audience includes a wide geographic area in diverse communities with a wide range of challenges and opportunities. This occasional series will inform our audience -- both on air and online -- of activities, opportunities and events in individual communities to build common understanding among listeners of the government, business and social climate in northern Illinois.

Jenna Dooley has spent her professional career in public radio. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois - Springfield. She returned to Northern Public Radio in DeKalb after several years hosting Morning Edition at WUIS-FM in Springfield. She is a former "Newsfinder of the Year" from the Illinois Associated Press and recipient of NIU's Donald R. Grubb Journalism Alumni Award. She is an active member of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and an adjunct instructor at NIU.
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