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Mike Dunn, The Dealmaker

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He’s blunt and a little abrasive, but the’s also darned effective at making deals that are good for the Rockford region. Meet “The Dealmaker,” who is presently engaged with leading Rockford’s airport to greater heights.

Dunn in conversation with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin.

Dunn in conversation with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin.

Mike Dunn has been called many things during his memorable career. The closer, tough as nails, game changer, you name it.

The executive director of the Chicago Rockford International Airport isn’t afraid to speak his mind. “I’ve always been aggressively headstrong,” he says. “The older I get, the less tolerant I’ve become over baloney. And there’s no shortage of that.”

Blunt honesty is a quality that some find endearing about the 62-year-old Dunn and others not so much. But if you compiled a list of movers and shakers in Rockford, there’s no debate that Dunn would be near the top of the list. He’s helped broker deals, raised millions in campaign dollars and bridged gaps between institutions in the many positions he’s held over the past 40 years.

“He’s one of the most extraordinary civic boosters ever,” says former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson. “There’s no bigger supporter of Rockford than Mike Dunn. He loves that community.”

Dunn does most of his dealings over a cup of coffee. It’s not uncommon to find him huddled in the corner of a restaurant with another local mover and shaker, for an early morning chat or a lunchtime meeting. “I’m not a good person for phone conversation,” he says. “I like to sit down with someone face-to-face for a relaxed conversation.”

It’s probably not always relaxed. Dunn pulls no punches when discussing the tough issues that surround his beloved hometown.

“The Rockford region has lost its luxury of being risk averse,” he says. “We need to get back to where we want to be as Transform Rockford says – a Top 25 city. To get from here to there, we have to take some chances that are well-thought out, calculated, highly analyzed risks. We have to get our necks out there a little bit. I think as a region, when things get tough, we pull our heads in a shell like a turtle. We whine and moan instead of getting proactive.”

That’s the beauty of conversing with Mike Dunn. You never know what he’s going to say next.

Growing Up

Born and raised in Rockford, Dunn, the youngest of five, has always had an affinity for politics, from the time in middle school when he portrayed then-Illinois Senator Charles Percy in a mock senate race. “I thank my U.S. History teacher, who instilled in me a strong desire to understand the political and governmental aspect of history,” he says. He cites the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley as one of his heroes.

After graduating from Boylan High School, Dunn attended the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., where he majored in journalism. But he left school early to return home and work at his father Jim’s woodworking factory, Winnebago Cabinet Company. He earned money sweeping floors and loading box cars so that he could marry Linda, his high school sweetheart. The Dunns have been married 41 years and have three grown children, Mike Jr., Peter and Megan, and six grandchildren.

In 1976, Dunn got his first real taste of big-time politics. He was driving one day when he heard on the radio that Jim Thompson, a U.S. prosecutor who was running for governor of Illinois, was coming to town to speak. Dunn drove to the airport to hear what the candidate had to say. Thompson, who went on to become the longest-serving governor in Illinois, made a lasting impression on Dunn, who, at 23, became one of the governor’s aides.

“I needed a coordinator to represent my interests in Winnebago County,” recalls Thompson. “I asked one of my friends for any names and he said everyone was taken but there was this kid. He introduced me to Mike and I found him to be smart as hell, personable and a great family guy. He’s been a remarkable friend for the past 40 years.”

In 1980, Dunn was elected Winnebago County Township Trustee, a victory he calls his crowning moment in politics, since it was the only time he ever ran for office. “I’ve never lost an election,” he teases. Since then, Dunn has been more comfortable standing in the background, away from the spotlight, helping to run campaigns and raise money for other candidates.

Over the years, Dunn has held various positions in many industries. In the 1980s, he was president and CEO of Miller Transportation Systems; for 18 years he served as vice president and general manager of Dickerson & Nieman Realtors; he also spent two years as vice president for development and governmental relations for Petry Development.

During his business dealings, Dunn has had the ear of local and national officeholders. When John McNamara was the mayor of Rockford in the 1980s, he and Dunn worked closely on a number of projects. “Mike has always been a standup guy,” says McNamara, senior development officer at Rockford University. “He’s a guy that gets things done. He’s tireless, knows people, and he’s not shy asking for help.”

Because of his many local ties, the whisper around town for a number of years has been that Dunn would someday run for mayor of Rockford. McNamara says Dunn would make a strong candidate. “He’d bring a lot of energy and creativity, and he would shake things up, which is OK,” he says. “Everyone’s style is different and Mike’s style would be more direct. He can be – in some minds – abrasive, loud or assertive, but he’s one of those people who are always thinking, and he knows how to connect the dots. He’s been a real positive force in the community.”

Dunn, who is part of current Mayor Larry Morrissey’s inner circle, admits that the idea of running the city is appealing. “Being the mayor of Rockford would be the ultimate challenge, but I don’t know that I have the fire in my belly,” he admits. “Mayor Morrissey would look like an altar boy compared to me. I don’t know that the citizens of Rockford are ready for me yet.”

Change Agent

In June 2009, Morrissey appointed Dunn to head up the Venues Advisory Committee to study not only the MetroCentre but the entire structure of downtown festivals, venues and special events. With a committee of 22 community leaders, Dunn spent nine months digging up everything he could about Rockford’s arena and its downtown venues.

The committee studied internal operations and traveled to other cities and toured other arenas. “None of us knew anything about running arenas,” Dunn says. “But the more we found out, the more obvious it became that this wasn’t being done right, and it wasn’t being done like any other city.”

Dunn and the committee compiled a 42-page Rockford Venues Committee report and turned the study into an action plan within a few short months. In its final report, issued in March 2010, the venues committee members offered blunt criticism. “First, there was very little, if any, communication and/or coordination among these organizations,” they stated. “In fact, [we] would say that a great deal of anger, hostility and resentment existed among their boards and their executives.”

The committee’s first decision was to dissolve the MetroCentre Authority Board, which oversaw the arena, Davis Park and the Coronado Performing Arts Center. They replaced it with a new entity that would eventually encompass the arena, the city-owned IceHogs hockey team, Davis Park, Coronado and the On the Waterfront festival. The mayor and city agreed and appointed Dunn to form and lead the Rockford Area Venues & Entertainment Authority Board (RAVE).

Dunn and the volunteer committee were able to reach a deal for a private management company, SMG, the nation’s largest venue operator, to run the MetroCentre and Davis Park, which took pressure off taxpayers. RAVE also was instrumental in securing a naming rights sponsor for the MetroCentre, which is now known as the BMO Harris Bank Center. RAVE has helped to reinvigorate downtown Rockford by attracting people to such events as Friday Night Flix and open skating at Harris Winter Wonderland, a seasonal 12,000-square-foot synthetic rink in Davis Park.

Not everyone, however, was on board with the RAVE plan. “It upset people,” Dunn says. “We fired everyone on the board and we handpicked a new board. Two years before, they lost $2.5 million in operating costs. In our first year, we took that down to $1.1 million, and by the third year it was $200,000. We made terrific headway.”

He adds, “I tend to ruffle a lot of feathers. Someone said I was a hand grenade thrower. I like that. If it creates action, I’m all for it.”

“Mike isn’t popular with everyone, but neither am I,” says Morrissey. “When you’re a change agent, your responsibility isn’t to be the most popular – it’s to get your job done. Mike is very good at putting effective teams together. He assembled a board that has been instrumental in RAVE’s success.”

In 2010, Dunn was named the regional director of intergovernmental affairs for Rockford and Winnebago County, a position funded by a one-time grant through the Rockford Area Economic Development Council. In that role, Dunn worked to bridge the gap between Morrissey and Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen, and helped to build the region’s political clout. “I felt like Henry Kissinger,” Dunn says. “To get the county board chair and mayor on the same sheet of music was fun for me.”

In that position, Dunn brought together many organizations: for example, the Winnebago County Housing Authority and the Rockford Housing Authority collaborated in ways they never had before. He also worked with city and county officials to solve downtown parking issues.

Dunn also helped to bring local law enforcement officials together to get criminals off the street with Operation Clean Sweep. He organized groups to form the Rockford Casino Coalition, putting Rockford on the verge of getting a gambling venue. “We used to joke that Mike could speak multiple languages politically,” says Morrissey. “He was very effective at listening to different sides of an issue and getting us on the same page. He’s demanding in driving towards the finish line, but he’s very effective in getting the job done.”

High Flyer

Getting the job done is why, three years ago, Dunn was named airport chief. He was no stranger to the inner workings of the organization, having served 10 years on the airport board, eight of them as chairman.

“The airport is a terrific opportunity,” he says. “[Former airport boss] Bob O’Brien used to say all the time, and I agreed with him, that the weakness of this airport is that we’re 65 miles from O’Hare, and the strength of this airport is that we’re 65 miles from O’Hare. It’s proven to be true. It’s always going to be difficult for us to be a business flyer’s airport. They will always need flexibility. If they miss the 8 a.m. flight they can be on the 9, 10 or 11 a.m. flight at O’Hare. I don’t think we’ll ever possess that ability. However, there’s a niche for us in the vacation and leisure market. We have two airlines that serve eight non-stop destinations. That’s something we can hang our hat on.”

Dunn hasn’t been afraid to shake things up. Staff changes have been made and departments restructured. Dunn compares his task to that of a symphony conductor. “My job is to get all the sections to play together off the same sheet of music,” he says. “If I have to pick up the instrument myself and play, I don’t need you.”

Under Dunn’s leadership, and with cooperation and financial support from the federal, state, county and city governments, the airport will undergo current and future construction projects that cost roughly $100 million.

The Rock Valley College Aviation Maintenance Technology program facility is building a 40,000-square-foot state-of-the-art building at the airport that will house the Rock Valley College educational program for aeronautical maintenance and repair. The new facility will be more than quadruple the size of the current one and allow for triple the number of annual graduates.

“We always knew Rock Valley College had a strong program for tech training, but it was too small and wasn’t producing enough students,” Dunn says. “It’s going to give young people who couldn’t afford to go to a four-year school an opportunity to be trained in a high-growth industry.”

Another huge deal is the news that AAR Corp., an international maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) provider, broke ground on two 90,000-square-foot hangars and 20,000 square feet of office and warehouse space at the airport. The project is expected to bring up to 1,000 jobs over the next five years.

In addition to the MRO project, a $20 million terminal expansion will be completed in phases over the next five years. Also, a new tower is expected to be in place by 2017.

“The airport in Rockford is an important economic engine for the entire region and Mike Dunn has been its biggest champion,” says Senator Dick Durbin. “I’ve worked with Mike for more than a decade and have been impressed with his dedication and commitment to the Rockford community. As airport director, he has been nothing short of relentless in his pursuit of new opportunities that will create jobs and economic development.”

One of the biggest draws at the airport is AirFest, an annual weekend air show that attracts thousands of people to Rockford. AirFest 2014 saw a record 135,000 visitors and generated about $3.5 million for the local economy. This year’s event is expected to be even bigger, thanks to an appearance by the Blue Angels.

Securing additional cargo opportunities is another item on Dunn’s checklist.

“The airport is the economic development driver for the region,” he says. “The terminal expansion is important because it will allow us to continue talking to airlines about more opportunities for service out of Rockford. Someone once said if you want to be a big airport, you have to act like a big airport. We’re getting to be a big airport.”

Close Call

All of Dunn’s wheeling and dealing came to a halt in January 2014, when he received the first health scare of his life. He suffered a serious stroke during routine surgery for a disc problem and woke up hours later in intensive care. Dunn spent the next three months laid up in the hospital and another seven months going to rehab three times a week. He experienced a temporary speech impediment, but no cognitive setbacks. He graduated from using a wheelchair to walking on his own, but still struggles a bit with balance. Dunn walks slowly but otherwise appears to be back to his old self.

“I was scared, I’ll be honest,” he says. “It changed my perspective on life. I find myself being more patient and tolerant, two things I was never good at. When I was in the hospital, I saw people who had it far worse than me. But for me, this was monumental.”

Dunn still rises early to meet with business associates by 7 a.m. But now he works hard to be home to Linda by early evening. “I don’t go to as many chicken dinners anymore,” he teases. But he still carves out time to serve on a number of local boards including Rockford Mutual Insurance Company, the OSF Advisory Board and the RAVE board.

Although he’s making an effort to relax, Dunn has no hobbies, aside from rooting on the Chicago Bears and White Sox.

“My doctors and my wife say I should get a hobby, but I don’t know what that would be,” he says. “I can’t imagine not having a goal or not going to work every day. Dealmaking is my hobby.”
And he’s pretty darn good at it.

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