Boldly looking forward: Nate Rockhold seeks to be mayor
by Mike Kroll
It is already a crowded four-person field with the strong prospect of one or two more candidates jumping into the race but the first person to publicly commit to running for Galesburg mayor is neither discouraged or deterred. Nate Rockhold is an unusual candidate for mayor. A bright young man who was sufficiently loyal that he was determined to return to Galesburg after graduating from Western Illinois University in 2003. He now is committed to staying in Galesburg to grow both his business, R3 Technologies, and the city itself.
Like many in Galesburg Rockhold is frustrated with our town's lack of direction and self-evident decline. He had seen nearly all of the bright young people he knows leave Galesburg with absolutely no plan to ever return and laments this brain drain. "There isn't much future for a town that can't retain at least some of its youth with high potential and attract young adults with ambition. We need to face facts and recognize that the days of Galesburg as a labor-intensive manufacturing town are over for good. Our future is tied to our ability to embrace this change and adapt to it."
An industrious guy who began working part-time in Maytag's Information Technology department right out of high school, where he continued until the very end of Maytag in Galesburg. Rockhold's father also worked in IT at Maytag and together with another Maytag computer programmer the trio wrote some critical software for the company and when Maytag closed for good they formed R3 Technologies in December 2003 and continued consulting with Maytag and eventually Whirlpool. Rockhold is president of R3 Technologies where this small company has branched out into a range of computer related products and services and is currently based in the basement of the Bondi Building.
"I consider our company as an entrepreneurial model for the future of Galesburg. Companies like mine can choose to locate anywhere and we need to position Galesburg to be one of their best choices. Just as we should be actively recruiting telecommuters, consultants and other professionals who can be based almost anywhere they chose to live. These are smart, driven people with above average incomes who want to live in an affordable, safe, attractive and less congested community where they can actually find more time to spend with their families and raise their kids."
Rockhold and his company are often touted as local economic development success stories and he is a strong believer in the entrepreneurial model but he also believes that we really need to redirect Galesburg's economic development efforts. "I do not fault the city for creating the Logistics Park and while there is always the possibility of success with their goal of warehousing I don't see that as the answer to Galesburg's economic development problems. Also, I really believe our efforts to lure the Chinese to town have been misdirected. If the Chinese are to become a component in Galesburg's future it will be as a low-cost manufacturer of high technology products that are designed and marketed from Galesburg."
Rockhold believes that if we really want to attract foreign investment in manufacturing here in Galesburg we should be looking toward large European companies with products aimed at the American market. "Even good-paying American jobs with benefits compare well to similar labor in Europe and with the rising cost of transporting goods overseas a strong case could be made for moving such manufacturing to the states and we should be positioning Galesburg for those opportunities just as Iowa has already been doing. Right now Galesburg doesn't have the available workforce to make this case and we need to begin working on this."
"I have always preached that we need to work with the local colleges, and by local I really mean more than just Knox and Carl Sandburg, on programs to help us keep students in this area after graduation. This means focusing on education programs with practical application to real world jobs that can be found in the Galesburg area. There is no reason why Galesburg cannot become a new site for small and growing technology companies or higher technology manufacturers who may well employ fewer workers but pay very attractive wages to these highly educated or skilled employees. One idea of mine is to create tuition reimbursement programs for students who fulfill a commitment to stay in the local area after graduating. Of course, to make this feasible we need to build a demand for those employees at the same time."
Rockhold and his company have benefited from economic development incentive and that has led him to an opinion that most of the local use of such incentives is misdirected. "Incentives shouldn't be used to attempt to lure new businesses to Galesburg but rather directed at helping already existing businesses grow or tackle new business opportunities. We also need to get away from the simplistic measure of the sheer number of new jobs created and perhaps focus more on growth in a companies payroll. Many of the best opportunities in Galesburg's future will be for small companies that employ comparatively few people but at higher individual salaries." He believes that increasing middle and upper-middle class employees in Galesburg is a better investment than simply encouraging larger numbers of low-wage unskilled labor and Rockhold is probably correct.
"There doesn't appear to be any quick fix for the Galesburg economy or to promptly stem the loss of population but there are clearly steps that can be taken to help address both issues. We need to stop allowing the quality of life in Galesburg to decline. We need to invest in better maintenance of our existing infrastructure and consider a substantial investment in a new fiber optic infrastructure. Available and affordable high-speed connectivity is critical to creating an attractive location for high tech investment or to lure more telecommuters to Galesburg. Today a data network is just as important to Galesburg's future as our water or street system and we need to move quickly to begin developing it."
One of the key deficiencies Rockhold has identified in Galesburg is a lack of systematic planning. He sees the constant move from one disjointed project to the next as inefficient and wasteful just as he believes that the Galesburg city council has failed to provide the necessary leadership and direction to the city manager and staff. "It is the job of the mayor and city council to develop a vision of where they want Galesburg to go and then take steps to get us there. That means that they must take the initiative and direct the city manager to carry out a program of the city council's design. That doesn't appear to be the way things now work in city hall."
A good case in point is the recently revealed plan for the revitalization of downtown Galesburg and the East Main Street corridor. "What I see is far too much emphasis on style and far too little substance in the proposals. For instance, most agree that Streetscape along Main Street was a costly flop yet they want to repeat that on Broad Street? I am all for more facade improvement and for developing the second stories but I don't see renovating for second story residential living as being realistic in Galesburg real estate market. The cost of the necessary renovation combined with what is realistic to ask as rent in Galesburg makes apartment conversions appear to be a poor business decision. However, we could create some outstanding new office space if we combine with a fiber optic network throughout the downtown. This could be the first step in developing a city-wide fiber optic infrastructure."
Another thing Rockhold just doesn't get, "What is this need we have to emphasize the past in everything we do in Galesburg? The future of this community is in embracing new technologies and adopting modern approaches to economic and community development. I am going to be an outspoken advocate for making fundamental change in Galesburg because I see that as the only way for this town to grow. Good things come to those who make them happen not those who chose to just wait."
Oct. 16, 2008