The City of Rockford was stunned last week when City manager Michael Young, 48, passed away Thursday, January 27, two days after suffering a stroke. His funeral was Monday, February 1.
Young, who was well-liked and loved by the community, recently celebrated 20 years of service to the City of Rockford. What follows is portions of a story that ran in our sister paper, the Rockford Squire, celebrating that anniversary, just a few weeks before his death.
Rockford celebrates 20th year under leadership of city manager
Michael Young hired in 1995
By Beth Altena
In the last regular meeting of 2015, Rockford City Council celebrated twenty years under the leadership of City Manager Michael Young, highlighting milestones in City history that have taken place under his tenure and vision. Young was hired in December,1995, and a look around the City today proves his work here is an ongoing success.
Former long-time Rockford City Council member Mary Eadie was on the search committee for a new city manager more than two decades ago, along with Neil Blakeslee, also former mayor of Rockford and long-term council member. Both remember well the decision to bring Young on board as leader of the City of Rockford.
Blakeslee said he was on council under then City Manager Daryl Delabbio, who left Rockford’s helm to lead the commissioners of Kent County as County Administrator, where he still serves today. Blakeslee said nearly 80 applications came in to fill the position, which Blakeslee said shows what a desirable town Rockford is to work and live in. He said Michael’s qualifications (he already had experience as Assistant City Manager in Greenville), and his values and personality, made him a forerunner in the search for a successor to Delabbio.
Eadie said she liked Michael for the job from the first meeting. “Everything about him, from who he was to what he’d done. He would have been my first choice from the start.”
“My judgement was right on, it turns out,” she said. She retired from city council in 2012 with an amazing 32 years on council here in Rockford. “I loved every minute of those 32 years,” she said, and she worked with Michael 17 of those years. “We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, there is never perfection in anything. I would say the greatest leadership of the City was under Michael and Daryl. All of the improvements, everything that has come about has put Rockford on the map.”
She said anywhere you go and anyone you talk to loves Rockford and loves to come here and spend time in the city. She appreciates the strong relationship between the city and the school district and the business community. All this comes from leadership and a local government that is run with a steady hand and a continuous eye toward improvement.
Blakeslee said Michael is a very creative, very focused person. Blakeslee said every project Michael undertakes, after careful consideration, gets done, and then Michael focuses on the next most important project for the city. He has accomplished a wide variety of improvements with no tax increases under his watch and one tax decrease—no mean feat.
“We lost a lot of tax revenue when those tannery buildings came down,” Blakeslee noted. One “secret weapon” Young brought to Rockford was the talent, willingness and know-how to seek and write grants to fund projects. In his capacity at Rockford, Young has brought in over $4 million in funds to accomplish projects. Many have been city improvement such as a current assessment of water and sewer lines, one of those many projects in infrastructure visitors and residents would never notice, but can be so vital to providing services.
More visible are Rockford’s parks and natural features. Rockford has received multiple grants for these projects and in 2005 Rockford was recognized as the municipality with more parkland per capita than any city in the United States.
A presentation created by City Clerk Chris Bedford highlighted many of the projects and improvements the City of Rockford has enjoyed under Young’s leadership. They include the creation of the industrial park north of the city, developments such as Rockford Estates, Rockford Highlands, Creekview Estates, Heritage Park, the Blakeslee Creek and Maple Shade condominiums, and the annexation of 237.14 acres of property into the City of Rockford. Those projects, and others, have not easily been implemented, but have been well-thought out growth to the City of Rockford.
Shortly after being hired, Young, in 1997, held a community meeting for feedback in how residents would like to see the city improved. In 1998 the first streetscape was done, giving the town the friendly, walkable sidewalks. According to a past interview with Barb Stein, cleaning up city streets raised the bar and encouraged property owners to up their game in appearance—a trend still encouraged today.
Improvements did not come without challenges, and natural disasters numbered among them. In 1997 a freak snowstorm caused massive damage and took months to clean up. In 1998 straight-line winds also challenged city crews to restore the downtown.
In 2000 the City of Rockford switched from using Rogue River water to a new treatment plant and major discussions considered what to do with riverfront property housing the old plant. Again with lots of community input, the current Promenade complex was approved. In 2002, the Michigan State Police discontinued their D.A.R.E. program, and Rockford took the reins and responsibility for this program. Also in 2002, Rockford started their super-popular farm market, which is wildly successful and was voted America’s Favorite Farm Market.
In 2005, the City approved the creation of the PARCCside Clean Water Plant. Again, residents of the five participating jurisdictions, the townships of Alpine, Cannon, Courtland Plainfield, and the City of Rockford, would have no idea the vision that it took for this plant to reach fruition. Young was the impetus behind this project, which he took on with the vision of saving residents here from projected cost increases that would not benefit their own service.
Young also leads the Downtown Development Authority, which captures tax dollars earmarked for the improvement of downtown Rockford. It has identified and implemented road, sidewalk and other improvements over the years. Rockford’s downtown tree plantings are paid for with DDA funds and other necessary projects. Most recently a new camera system was approved, paid for in part with DDA money. In many other capacities Young has overseen Rockford’s well-being over two decades.
Blakeslee said Young’s ability to accomplish so many projects for the city has been because of his talent and his personality. “He has always been so temperate and patient. You want a steady hand and he has always had a steady hand. He is always interested in seeing that everything is thought out.” Blakeslee said Rockford is a town of enthusiastic, talented people who see to the welfare of the town, but their energy doesn’t just happen. “It has to be directed and organized. Michael does that.”
Blakeslee said Young’s talent and leadership is also evidenced by the high-quality of staff among city employees, who tend to stay here, as does Michael. “There isn’t a lot of turnover, and that’s important in a well-run organization.” Young encourages staff and other city leaders to improve their own processes and make changes for the better.
An example of improvements is the consolidation of Police and Fire into the Department of Public Safety. Not a painless process, Young told the Squire once that the decision was the result of exhaustive research and consideration. “You don’t do something just because you can do it,” he said at the time. The result is cross-trained employees who can provide the services of two prior departments without a loss of quality of service. Rather, services for fire, medical and law enforcement are provided more quickly and with an increase in efficiency while saving the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. It is just one contribution among hundreds of ways Young has affected Rockford in his tenure.
Blakeslee, a former councilmember that has seen first-hand how important good leadership is to a well-run town, knows. “That one of the things people don’t understand, is you can’t separate the city from the government,” noted Blakeslee. “You can’t say you love the city without loving city hall. The city is what it is because of how city hall functions,” he stated. “I’ve been a Michael supporter since the day we hired him. The best evidence to Michael’s talent is that he is still here. He loves Rockford and he enjoys this community so much. He is truly a resident of Rockford.”