Illinois border city sees tourist gold in Wisconsin standoff

Reuters Business News
Posted: Mar 09, 2011 6:59 PM
Illinois border city sees tourist gold in Wisconsin standoff

By James B. Kelleher

ROCKFORD, Ill (Reuters) - Forbes magazine recently dubbed this industrial city about 60 miles west of Chicago one of the worst places to live in the United States, citing its high crime and jobless rates.

So when a bitter political fight 60 miles north in Madison, Wisconsin prompted 14 state Senators to flee across the border and briefly hide out in Rockford, city boosters sensed an opportunity to burnish their town's image, badly maligned last year when Forbes called Rockford one of the 20 Most Miserable Places in America.

Cue the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau latest campaign, a tongue-in-check Internet-focused push that extols the city as a place to flee no matter who you're trying to get away from -- whether it's your boss, your spouse or your state's newly elected governor.

The campaign, titled Hide Away in Rockford http:///, relies heavily on social media sites like YouTube and Twitter and includes two short videos that highlight the city's restaurants and other attractions.

Both videos feature cameos by Rick Nielsen, the bow-tie- and cardigan-wearing lead guitarist of the rock band Cheap Trick -- perhaps Rockford's most famous living native.

"I've been hiding out here for 40-some, 50 -- I can't even tell you how many years," Nielsen says in the first video, which has already had 100,000 hits on YouTube.

The second video follows the adventures of two fictitious Wisconsin State Troopers dispatched to round up the missing Senators. The two have so much fun in the city that they stop looking, get "Hide Away in Rockford" tattoos and never go home.

Rockford has also reached out to legislators on both sides of the aisle in Madison, as well Scott Walker, Wisconsin's new Republican governor, and offered to host a border summit for the lawmakers, who have fallen out over Walker's plan to strip public employees of most of their union rights.

In an effort to delay passage of the plan, 14 Democratic state Senators fled to Illinois three weeks ago to deny Walker's 19 Republican allies in the chamber the quorum they need to enact the proposal.

Several of them stopped overnight in Rockford and might have stayed here but were outed by Tea Party activists.

"Rockford's location between Madison and Chicago makes it the perfect 'middle ground' for such a summit -- something that has eluded Wisconsin lawmakers of late," the invite says.

John Groh, head of the city's visitors bureau, insists he's not taking sides in the Wisconsin battle, which has triggered protests in Madison that have drawn tens of thousands of demonstrators and triggered more than a dozen recall campaigns across the state targeting both Walker backers and opponents.

"I've consistently said that we're not trying to make a political statement here," Groh said.

"The situation in Madison is serious and significant not only for Wisconsin, its public workers and their economy but for the nation as you see this playing out in other states as well. But what we're just trying to say is that even in life's most tense moments, it's important to push the pause button and get away."

(Editing by Jerry Norton)