Features

Rockford’s Future: How Young Professionals Fit In

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Who are young professionals, what do they enjoy, and what does the Rockford region offer them? Find out how our community caters to this demographic, and why a healthy future depends on them.

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Young professionals are the leaders of tomorrow. They’re a group that’s reshaping our region, delivering new insights to the workplace and inspiring local businesses to stretch themselves in new ways.

Encompassing a wide demographic, these individuals in their 20s and 30s are a part of the millennial generation. According to Pew Research Center surveys, millennials are avid users of social media, generally distrustful of others, burdened by debt and in no rush to marry. They’re also relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, with 50 percent of participants in a 2014 survey describing themselves as politically independent, while 29 percent said they’re not affiliated with any religion.

This is the highest recorded percentage of disaffiliation of any generation.

With a wide range of interests, young professionals explore some of Rockford’s greatest attractions and participate in community improvement projects.

“The Rockford region continues to grow and transform on so many levels,” says Andrea Mandala, marketing and communications manager for the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re a very community-driven region that allows for young professionals to be involved with various organizations, committees and volunteer groups. You really get the best of both worlds – big-city amenities with a small-town feel – when living here.”

To ensure continued prosperity in the region, area leaders find it imperative to keep young professionals living in our region and their dollars flowing through the local economy. Fortunately, our community offers an abundance of entertainment, education and recreation options for young professionals to explore.

Where the YPs Are

It’s not uncommon to see young professionals enjoying lunch meetings, coffee breaks or dinner dates at Rockford’s unique spots. Mandala, a young professional herself, has more than a few favorite restaurants that double as weekend hangouts.

“Young professionals in the Rockford region enjoy supporting local businesses,” Mandala says. “There’s a wide selection of local eateries within walking distance to businesses in our downtown.”

Abreo, Social Urban Bar and Restaurant, Bamboo Asian Noodles and Tapas Bar, and Hope and Anchor English Pub are a few of her top picks.

Abreo, 515 E. State St., is an eclectic urban restaurant in downtown Rockford that creates an inspired dining experience by serving original and seasonal menus sourced heavily from local farmers.

Social Urban Bar & Restaurant, 509 E. State St., is a locally sourced New American establishment offering seasonal food with a focus on local meats and produce.
“They also have a bar dedicated to the art of making delicious cocktails,” Mandala says. “You can find carefully selected wines and microbrews there as well. Social’s service style, which includes communal dining tables, really connects you with the kitchen and bar and makes for a unique and interactive experience.”

Bamboo Asian Noodles and Tapas Bar, 514 E. State St., offers homemade traditional cuisine in a comfortable, affordable atmosphere, while Hope and Anchor English Pub, 5040 N. Second St., Loves Park, Ill., serves as a great place to savor craft beer and enjoy a renowned Fish ’N Chips plate.

During the day, Mandala suggests a visit to a local coffee shop, such as Rockford Roasting Company, Wired Cafe, Meg’s Daily Grind or Katie’s Cup. In addition to quality coffee, these establishments offer a quaint atmosphere for hosting meetings, working on projects or simply hanging out.

Once the weather warms up, one of Mandala’s favorite hangouts is Dinner on the Dock at Prairie Street Brewhouse, 200 Prairie St., Rockford. A casual, laid-back Thursday evening ritual, Dinner on the Dock lasts all summer long on the banks of the Rock River.

“It’s a chance to enjoy live music while supporting a phenomenal local business,” Mandala says.

While Dinner on the Dock is an event for people of any age to enjoy, Nicole Blough, assistant events manager with Prairie Street Brewhouse, often spots young professionals in the crowd.

Young men and women come straight from work, dressed in attire from casual to business professional. Some sit at tables, enjoy food and beverages and listen to the band, while others lounge on boats off the riverbank.

“Whether you’re there for the music or just to meet up with a group of friends or colleagues to socialize, Dinner on the Dock is a perfect way to enjoy a summer night right next to the river,” Blough says. “The river view and cityscape show people a side of Rockford they probably have never seen before. You will see some of the best sunsets from our docks. At night, the glow of the lights on the Jefferson Street Bridge reflect off the water like dancing fireflies.”

Meandering through Rockford City Market, along Water Street downtown, is a popular Friday-night after-work activity, with live music, locally made items and locally crafted brews. Nikki Lee, the market’s vendor manager, says the laid-back, social atmosphere is what makes the market appealing to young professionals.

As a small, nonprofit organization, Rockford City Market takes many months to plan. Lee spends the fall and winter preparing for the weekly market, which runs from May through September. Many of the vendors she works with also are young professionals.

“The YPs visiting the market can relate to the other young professional entrepreneurs who are vending,” Lee says. “Many YPs use the market to incubate their business dreams, and several of them have already successfully moved into local storefronts selling items such as their pizzas, soaps, candles, dog treats, bakery items and more.

Since the market’s on a Friday night, many young professionals come out after work to meet up with friends, grab some food and find a bottle of wine for their weekend.”

Lee recommends doing a lap of the entire market before purchasing anything, since there are many natural products and unique retail items for sale.

The 2016 season kicks off May 20 and runs every Friday from 3:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Upcoming Events of Interest

Even in cold weather, abiding the restlessness of cabin fever is easy when there’s a diversity of performances, hockey games and other experiences in town. Troy Flynn, the executive director and event manager of the Rockford Area Venues and Entertainment Authority (RAVE), foresees young professionals enjoying many upcoming events.

The Coronado Performing Arts Center, 314 N. Main St., Rockford, has some especially exciting shows in the near future.

“We have several different events that young professionals would like to attend,” Flynn says. “Our comedy programming for the spring is very robust. Impractical Jokers, The Comedy Party, and Michael Carbonaro are going to be fun nights to be downtown. With reasonable ticket prices, you can have a really nice start to your weekend with a few friends.”

The Impractical Jokers “Where’s Larry?” tour comes to the Coronado March 18; The Comedy Party featuring Pauly Shore, Harland Williams, Tom Green and Bobby Lee arrives April 8; and Michael Carbonaro Live! lights up the stage April 16.

Flynn also suggests checking out a Rockford IceHogs game at the BMO Harris Bank Center, 300 Elm St., Rockford.

“IceHogs games allow young professionals the ability to relax in an exciting atmosphere,” Flynn says. “Beyond traditional seats, we have suites which allow you to network with guests and peers, and we have club lounges and club boxes that are available on a game-to-game basis that can be used as a reward for clients, or for a teambuilding experience. The flexibility and opportunity that we have at the BMO Center can be as creative as the guest wants it to be.”

Regular-season IceHogs games happen on a weekly basis throughout April.

For some Irish cheer, consider attending Prairie Street Brewhouse’s St. Patrick’s Day Post Party on March 12. Doors open at 3 p.m., with four bands playing throughout the day.

“We’ll be replacing our regular menu with an exciting Irish-themed menu,” Blough says. “There will be plenty of green beer as well.”

The Brewhouse returns to regular operation at 8 p.m.

For something active and outdoorsy, Prairie Street Brewhouse hosts the third annual Meltfest on March 26 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The event celebrates the melting away of winter and melting together of the community. Participate in a 5k run/walk and enjoy ice skating, trolley rides, market vendors, live music and more.

Finally, the Tour De North End bicycle event at Olympic Tavern, 2327 N. Main St., Rockford, is something young professionals can look forward to this summer. Participants are encouraged to gear up and take their “TDNE passport” to various local businesses to earn stamps, then return to the Olympic Tavern for a post-party with live music, giveaways and delicious eats.

“I participated this past summer and loved being able to support multiple local businesses while having fun with friends and strangers, too,” Mandala says. “Events like this are a win for our community because it’s a social way to get to know people outside your everyday network.”

For more information on local events, visit gorockford.com/visitors/calendar.

YP Organizations

While Rockford is ripe with fun events, delicious dining and local shops, it’s difficult to engage in any of what our city has to offer without a group of friends.

That’s why Sarah Gasser, a myofascial release therapist at Brynwood Myofascial Therapy, decided to create a group for people her age when she moved to Rockford two years ago. After researching some options, Gasser discovered Meetup, a downloadable application for iOS and Android that allows you to create or join groups based on a common interest.

“I moved here from Iowa and didn’t know anybody, and I kept thinking, ‘How do you meet people in your mid-20s?’” Gasser says. “I found Meetup and decided to create a group for young professionals in the Rockford area. I’ve literally met all of my friends through it.”

At first, Gasser had only four people in the group. Now, it has more than 300 members. Any young professional between the ages of 21 and 40 can download the Meetup app, request to join the Rockford Young Professionals Group, and attend events. Those who wish to create their own events within the group can request to become an administrator.

The group does everything from game and movie nights to volunteering at Rockford Rescue Mission or playing broomball on Mondays at Riverview Ice House. Beyond simply making friends, Gasser wants to support local businesses.

“I want to help our economy, as well as make friends,” Gasser says. “When people go to Chicago, Madison or Milwaukee on the weekends, they take their money out of our town. So, my ultimate goal is to give people something to do on the weekends, get them to stay here, and help out our economy by having these meet-ups at local businesses.”

Mark Middendorff was in a similar situation when he moved to Rockford nearly eight years ago. An associate attorney with SmithAmundsen LLC, Middendorff had few friends or connections when he first arrived.

When his boss suggested that he join Ignite Rockford, a nonprofit organization with a mission to attract and retain young professionals to the Rockford region, Middendorff thought he’d give it a try. Little did he know he’d someday lead it.

“I thought that, at the very least, I’d get to meet some more young professionals and feel a little more comfortable in this city,” Middendorff says. “Everyone at Ignite was really friendly, and as I became more involved, I became more excited about Rockford.”

Today, the Rockford Chamber of Commerce supports Ignite, which gives the group wider opportunities to engage young professionals with leadership, professional and personal development, and volunteer opportunities.

Ignite’s grand event, the Ignite cup, offers young professionals the chance to partake in friendly competition by doing various activities around Rockford. Teams of about 10 people form at the beginning of the summer to go bowling, play Frisbee golf, attend trivia nights, go mini-golfing and participate in other events to earn points for their team.

The team with the most points at the end of the summer wins the Ignite cup, a traveling trophy that winning teams pass on year to year.

“The Ignite Cup helps get local businesses involved,” Middendorff says. “They often host us, or they might offer free food after an event. And all throughout, we encourage people to do some volunteer work and become more involved in the community.”

Throughout the year, three Ignite committees host events.

The Reach Committee plans monthly events called “After 5,” where young professionals can gather in a low-key environment at rotating local restaurants.

“The point of these events is that they’re easy entry for people who are maybe tentative to join the group, or maybe they don’t know much about it,” Middendorff says. “It’s casual, no pressure, no money. It’s a great way to experience local businesses, mingle a little bit and make a couple of casual connections.”

Ignite’s Involve Committee organizes volunteer opportunities. Since many of Rockford’s young professionals hail from outside the region, this committee aims to educate Ignite members about the issues that Rockford faces and engage them in solutions.

The Educate Committee hosts a book club for free-flowing conversation and engagement on an intellectual level, in addition to drawing engaging speakers to Rockford with “Lunch Outside the Box” events.

“Speakers come in and address various points that young professionals are interested in,” Middendorff says. “It’s not very often that young people get the opportunity to question the movers and shakers of the community, so these events offer that kind of access. The first Lunch Outside the Box event I went to was with Mayor Morrissey, and we got to ask questions about the state of the city, which was a great opportunity. We’ve also had presentations about first-time home buying, and things of that nature.”

Ignite has been a positive experience for Middendorff, who’s found reward in exploring Rockford, meeting new people, growing personally and professionally, and reaching outside his comfort zone.

“I think Rockford has a lot more going for it than people realize,” Middendorff says. “Rockford has a feeling of a smaller town with everything you could want from a big city. I mean it when I say I don’t want to go back to Chicago.”

Self-Improvement

Opportunities to advance in personal and professional development are bountiful in Rockford. Year-round, young professionals can sign up for non-credit community education classes at Rock Valley College to grow their knowledge and explore new interests.

“We offer a huge variety of personal-interest classes,” says Jessica Brady, community and continuing education assistant. “If you want to join a group exercise class, learn how to throw an amazing dinner party, or make sure your finances are in order for later in life, we have classes for all of that and more.”

The affordable lessons usually meet once or twice a week, though some can meet more often, depending on the class. Young professionals can sign up in person or online at rockvalleycollege.edu.

Look for a complete schedule of 2016 summer courses at the beginning of May. Opportunities in art, communications, dance, finance, history, language, music, literature, photography, writing and more will be available.

“Community education allows you to indulge in hobbies you might not otherwise get to pursue,” Brady says. “Whether you want to get healthier, have some time to yourself or learn a new skill, we have something that will help you continue the process of lifelong learning.”

For outdoor recreation, consider signing up for a spring/summer program with the Rockford Park District. A variety of lessons, leagues, clinics and workshops are available for young professionals.

The district offers lesson programs for golf, swimming, tennis, track-and-field, horseback riding, figure skating, hockey, volleyball, golf, soccer, softball/baseball and more. A variety of environmental education/recreation opportunities are also available, from fishing to watercolor workshops. Register in person or online at rockfordparkdistrict.org.

In addition, the park district has 177 parks and facilities to explore.

“I highly recommend visiting Atwood Center and Park, which features the Birds of Prey Exhibit and is one of the district’s largest parks,” says Laura Gibbs-Green, park district public relations and internal communications manger. “Atwood Park is situated along the Kishwaukee River and boasts 334 acres of diverse natural area, which includes forest, marsh and prairieland.”

For additional opportunities affiliated with the park district, consider zip lining or snow tubing at Alpine Hills Adventure Park, 4402 Larson Ave., Rockford; wakeboarding at WestRock Wake Park, 1420 S. Pierpont Ave., Rockford; ice skating at Carlson Ice Arena, 4150 N. Perryville Road, Loves Park, Ill.; and horseback riding at Lockwood Park Trailside Equestrian Centre, 5201 Safford Road, Rockford.

“Any park district location provides the chance to make some amazing memories that will last a lifetime,” Gibbs-Green says. “These spots also provide an experience that likely isn’t going to be the same twice.”

A Positive Outlook

With so much in Rockford for young professionals to explore, life is looking positive for this active demographic.

“The YPs are the future of Rockford,” Flynn says. “Engaging this group is critical for the growth of downtown. Ultimately, we are lucky to have each other.”

The efforts of local organizations and nonprofit groups are not to be understated. Their persistence in engaging young professionals promises to strengthen the region, and when our region is thriving, there’s much to appreciate.

“We work hard daily to show what a wonderful destination our region is,” Mandala says. “But when you get to take a step back and see the support from the community, well, there isn’t much that beats that feeling.”

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