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Free parking brings Jehovah’s Witnesses convention back to Rockford

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Event to draw thousands, generate an estmated $750,000 in spending

ROCKFORD — The City Council this week agreed to forgo nearly $50,000 in parking revenue to lure the Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses back to town after an 11-year absence.

Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau President and CEO John Groh said his office went “out on a ledge” and months ago promised free parking for convention attendees to help seal the deal. Had the City Council not approved the measure Monday, the RACVB may have had to go back to event organizers, eaten the cost of parking, or gone to corporate partners to ask for help paying it.

Groh said the City Council showed that Rockford values the group’s business. And he said the risk was worthwhile because of the potential economic return for the city. It is expected to draw 15,000 attendees over three weekends, generating an estimated $750,000 in spending at hotels, restaurants and venues.

“Rockford has more hotel rooms and Rockford is family friendly,” Groh said. “It has museums, parks and restaurants close to the hotels. And the progress and momentum in downtown Rockford is a much different picture in terms of restaurants, shops and general vitality than it was 10 years ago.”

Attendees are expected to visit from Milwaukee, Madison, Kenosha and Racine, Wisconsin, and Dubuque and Davenport, Iowa, as well as the Rockford and Chicago areas. Daily sessions of the convention — called “Don’t give up!” — are free and open to the public beginning each day at 9:20 a.m. July 28-30, Aug. 4-6 and Aug. 11-13 at the BMO Harris Bank Center, 300 Elm St.

The group last met in Rockford in 2006. The event left for DeKalb — where a Spanish-language convention is still planned — when the BMO Harris Bank Center underwent renovations a decade ago.

The City Council’s vote to subsidize parking shows that Rockford values the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention, said Peter Arthurs, a volunteer spokesman.

The convention will feature talks, interviews, short videos and a three-part feature film, all focused on biblical advice and guidance for how those feeling discouraged can “enjoy life and gain confidence in a better future,” Arthurs said.

Alderwoman Venita Hervey, D-5, was the lone “no” vote on waiving the $5 a day event parking fee that would total an estimated $48,750 for all three weekends. Hervey said the fees are there to defray the burden placed on property taxpayers for the cost of parking.

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