Riding on last year’s wave of economic development, officials across our region are sailing through another busy year. Explore how seven communities are supercharging recent developments, how they’re setting the stage for new things to come, and why they’re optimistic about their prospects for the coming 12 months.
Bright sunshine, fertile soil, and just enough rain all set the stage for a perfect spring garden, which in time yields a bountiful late-summer harvest. Just as sun, soil, rain, seeds and planning cultivate a healthy vegetable garden, local economic leaders realize success through ideas, location, design, investors and planning.
For cities across northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, this year’s business development forecast is mostly sunny, with a high chance of economic blossoming.
Blooming in Beloit
The Interstate 90 corridor and City Center areas of Beloit are blooming with activity this year.
City leaders are especially focused on the Gateway Business Park, located near the confluence of Interstates 39/90 and 43. The business park is attracting companies from a wide variety of industries, including advanced manufacturing, food, healthcare, logistics, plastics and real estate development.
Current tenants include flavoring ingredients manufacturer Kerry Inc., a distribution center for Staples and food manufacturer Kettle. New projects are taking root this year.
“Our most recent project announcement is the construction of G5 Brewing, which is a new microbrewery that will be located in the Gateway Business Park,” says Andrew Janke, economic development director for the City of Beloit. “We have approved that offer to purchase and are in the process of closing. They hope to begin construction in the spring of 2017.”
Key to all of this development is the park’s prime location at two major interstates.
“This mixed-use park offers more than 300 acres of fully improved sites and certified shovel-ready sites,” says Janke. “The interstate corridor not only provides ease of access to raw material and markets for finished goods, but connects to a workforce that extends from Madison to Belvidere.”
In downtown Beloit, there’s a concerted effort to support entrepreneurs and grow new businesses at Irontek, a new co-working space, business incubator and tech hub located in the recently renovated Beloit Ironworks. The renovated former factory now houses several IT-related companies, including software makers Comply365 and Fat Wallet.
“This dynamic and collaborative space was conceived by the developers of the Ironworks to build upon the several other high-tech firms that have located and/or have expanded there,” says Janke.
The business climate in Beloit is primed for success both now and in the future.
“Along with industrial development, Beloit has seen growth in commercial activity and residential development,” says Janke.
He sees continued opportunities for growth in the area’s key sectors, in part because of Wisconsin’s business-friendly attitude.
“Manufacturers will continue to see the competitive advantage of doing business in Wisconsin, with its low income tax rates, low workers comp rates and vastly improved business climate,” he says.
“The local economic development team is able to offer competitive incentive packaging, providing qualified clients with fully improved sites for as little as $1, access to capital financing, talent recruitment and retention, tax credits, and other services.”
Aerospace Takes off in Rockford
Recent growth and expansion at the Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD) has further cemented the region’s relationship with the aerospace industry. The region boasts about 200 aerospace-related companies within 90 miles of Rockford.
“There are more than 90 aerospace companies within Winnebago County alone,” says Nathan Bryant, president and CEO of Rockford Area Economic Development Council (RAEDC). “We are the sixth-largest concentration of aerospace employment in the country. If it’s flying in the air today, the Rockford region made a component on that aircraft.”
New education and workforce strategies are bolstering the region’s aerospace cluster. Bryant says local firms are helping to raise nearly $6 million to support the joint Northern Illinois University and Rock Valley College four-year engineering degree program. The first classes began this past fall.
“Our young people are now able to get four-year engineering and engineering technology degrees at the Rock Valley campus for approximately $40,000,” says Bryant.
While local officials cultivate the jobs of the future, this past year brought an infusion of new jobs, thanks to the new AAR Corp. facility at the airport. This $40 million maintenance, repair and overhaul facility is hiring many highly skilled workers.
“That hangar is only one of two hangars of its size in the entire world,” says Bryant. “So, we can service any plane from anywhere in the world, right here in Rockford.”
AAR expects to employ between 300 and 500 people in Rockford within the next three to seven years. In order to ensure a continued supply of these highly skilled workers, RVC’s new Aviation Career Education Center, located across the street, is providing a critical training ground.
Students in the Aviation Maintenance Technology Program are guaranteed a job interview at AAR. Since the education center opened several months ago, RVC students already have been applying to and receiving jobs.
“We needed to demonstrate that we had the workforce available to support the jobs that AAR would generate,” Bryant says. “In order to do that, we created a workforce development strategy in which Rock Valley College partnered with the airport to create an education platform for mechanics right there at the airport.”
Bryant believes the new RVC program has the potential to impact the entire region, not just AAR.
“This is a synergistic relationship between education and private-sector employment,” he says.
Outside the aerospace cluster, other parts of Rockford are enjoying marked growth. Downtown events like Stroll on State and City Market draw large crowds to the neighborhood and its new businesses. The Rockford Trust Building, redubbed the Burnham Lofts in honor of the building’s famous architect, holds 62 new one- and two-bedroom apartments.
“The Rockford area is proving that a historic Midwestern manufacturing region can reboot and transform – even in Illinois,” says Bryant. “The business community rallied behind the AAR project on financing, direct workforce solutions from Rock Valley College, and also in innovative and timely construction. The Rockford area, which was recently ranked fifth in the nation in job growth by the Milken Institute, is attracting a notable amount of investment and jobs.”
Growth Spurt in Belvidere
Two of Belvidere’s largest employers are leading the way in local business growth and development.
“With the retooling at Fiat Chrysler to accommodate the Jeep Cherokee, new Chrysler suppliers to the region include Yenfang and Magna International,” says Pamela Lopez-Fettes, executive director of Growth Dimensions in Belvidere. “With the new cereal bar production line at General Mills, a $60 million investment has been made to expand the Belvidere location.”
Lopez-Fettes finds several advantages to doing business in the Belvidere area, including proximity to I-90 and the region’s established industries, plus ample room for growth.
“With access to the I-90 corridor, the area is premier for the transportation, logistics and distribution industries,” she says. “The I-90 corridor is also extremely important to business growth in Belvidere and Boone County.”
Of course, the location also proves fruitful for those who work in other areas but flock to Boone County for affordable housing, Lopez-Fettes adds.
She sees potential for continued growth in advanced manufacturing, agriculture, food processing and healthcare, but believes there’s also a need for improvements in infrastructure, utilities, transportation and communications.
City leaders plan to improve the Pleasant Street Bridge, which passes over the Kishwaukee River and is a critical throughway for General Mills plant traffic.
Meanwhile, downtown Belvidere is enjoying several aesthetic enhancements.
“This includes improving the downtown streetscape with repairs to walkways and the addition of planters,” says Lopez-Fettes. “Belvidere has also planted grass in vacant lots and added a community garden. A new restaurant called the Iron and Coal Company is being developed downtown near the river and adjacent to the pet wash and dog park.”
Rooted in Rail, in Rochelle
Nearly 120 years after being christened the “Hub City,” Rochelle is still a powerful player in the railroad industry.
Companies in the food and agricultural sector view the city’s rail presence as leverage in the mass distribution of their products, says Jason Anderson, economic development director for the city of Rochelle and executive director of the Greater Rochelle Economic Development Corporation.
“We’re seeing a lot of interest in rail and the ability to expedite products from coast to coast by rail,” he says. “We’re working with a lot of food interests, particularly companies that handle frozen food and produce. With easy access to multiple railroads, we’re able to get food products out of the fields and to market faster.”
Located at the confluence of several rail lines, Interstate 39 and Interstate 88, Rochelle is benefitting not only from a prime location but also its business-friendly climate and infrastructure.
“With the infrastructure we have here today – rail, interstate highways, abundant land, water and wastewater treatment – we are in an ideal position to meet the needs of industry,” Anderson says. “It’s about making things easier, simpler and more efficient for businesses.”
Lately, Anderson finds Rochelle’s most exciting agri-business ventures are BrightFarms and MightyVine Tomatoes, two hydroponic growing facilities that together cover nearly 1 million square feet.
“They have discovered the logistical advantage of being able to grow hydroponic produce and deliver it within hours of being harvested,” says Anderson. “These hydroponic grow-houses are growing fresh vegetables 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and they are unbelievably high-quality and great-tasting.”
Elsewhere in Rochelle, opportunities are arising around the movement of frac sand, a product used in the hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” process for extracting oil and natural gas.
“Frac sand moves into Rochelle out of the Interstate 88 corridor and gets trans-loaded from trucks into trains,” explains Anderson. “Frac sand is a major driver on our rail system.”
The city owns and operates its own short-line railroad that connects between the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern lines that crisscross the city. Anderson believes the line is a key facilitator to business growth.
“Our 14-mile railroad system serves 15 industries, and all of those industries get equal access to both of those Class I railroads,” he says. “That is what’s driving so much of the new business here. We’ve created more than $1.5 billion of capital investment in land, buildings and equipment over the 30 years this rail line has been in existence.”
Anchor Businesses Staked in Monroe
A strong network of existing businesses in Monroe, Wis., provides the backbone for further business growth in Green County, says Mike Johnson, executive director of the Green County Development Corporation.
“I think the main area of our focus is making sure that we have strong business retention and expansion programs, and making sure that we’re a good resource for those businesses that choose to start up and expand right here in Monroe and Green County,” he says.
The agricultural, food and beverage, and tourism industries continue to power the local economy. Agricultural staples include Kuhn North America, in Brodhead, and a number of smaller manufacturers of farm equipment. “The dairy farming industry is a big piece of our economy and that also spills into our food and beverage cluster,” Johnson says.
Turns out, you’ll find many common links among the top businesses in Green County, says Johnson.
“We have two of the largest breweries in the county right here in Green County: New Glarus Brewing Company and Minhas Brewery, and our cheese manufacturing is huge,” Johnson says. “We’ve got more master cheesemakers here in Green County than anywhere else in North America.”
Consequently, several businesses in these industries are either stretching out or setting a foundation. New arrivals include Eastland Feed and Grain, in Monroe, which serves local livestock farmers, and Hawks Mill Winery, in New Glarus, a budding family-owned winery. The Klondike Cheese Co. is introducing a full line of yogurt products and a line of Muenster cheese. Expansion projects are also planned at Minhas Brewery and New Glarus Brewing Co.
The area’s strong business retention and expansion is good news for the region, but it’s creating an unexpected dilemma.
“There’s been a shift in Wisconsin from strictly job creation and attracting employees to finding places for these people to live,” says Johnson. “If we’re going to bring people in, we need the infrastructure to support them. I think we need everything from affordable housing all the way up to high-end housing, in order to attract people needed to fill the jobs we have.”
Housing Heats up in Freeport
Housing developments for seniors and families are dominating the discourse in Freeport.
“The Rose Ridge development includes 30 lots in the Rose Meadows subdivision, and in the Countryside Estates Plat, that have been vacant or unused for 10 years,” says Freeport Mayor Jim Gitz. “Freeport has not had any new housing starts in the past eight years, except for a Habitat for Humanity home. The plan is to start with a spec home priced at $169,900 and have five new homes by the end of 2017.”
Developers received city approval to extend Enterprise Zone benefits, a tool Gitz says will offer a trial effort at fast-tracking housing starts.
When it comes to senior housing, the new WinnPrairie development promises to deliver 32 two-bedroom independent living units and 21 private memory care units. Gitz calls it the “next generation” of senior housing.
The Parkview Home is also adding a new memory care unit.
“Parkview’s construction project includes a new $9 million, three-story building that would be attached to its current core and include 30 private rooms – half of which would be for skilled nursing care,” Gitz says. “The expansion will add about 90 new jobs.”
Housing isn’t the only section heating up in Freeport. New gains in the retail sector are taking root as national chains expand to smaller markets, like Freeport. New endeavors at the JJ Ventures strip and XSite Realty’s phase two strip center are two examples, says Gitz.
Surprisingly, opportunities are opening up for transportation systems, as well. Pretzel City Transit, a partnership between the city and State of Illinois, is answering the need for bus service in and around Freeport. The group recently added transportation options for workers at Berner Food & Beverage, a manufacturer located 12 miles north of Freeport in tiny Afolkey, Ill.
“This expansion of public transit is aimed at serving a business that has a pressing need for transportation of workers to and from Freeport,” says Gitz. “So far, it has been very successful, and we hope to expand employer-based transportation to other businesses.”
Infrastructure in Dixon
Strong infrastructure and solid plans to entice new businesses are facilitating economic growth in Dixon, Ill. Efficiently tapping the region’s many resources is crucial to attracting business, says John R. Thompson, president/CEO of the Dixon Area Chamber of Commerce & Industry and the Lee County Industrial Development Association.
“As a community that is now 185 years old, we obviously have a continuous need to repair and replace older water, sewer, streets, sidewalks and curbs,” Thompson says. “Recently, the city completed a multi-year project replacing underground utilities along East River Street, on First Street and in downtown.”
These infrastructure improvements are part of a $10 million investment along the Rock River and the city’s historical district.
“Boat docking facilities are also being added this summer to establish a direct river connection into the downtown off the Rock River National Water Trail,” Thompson adds.
It’s the city’s network of roads that provide a critical avenue to business attraction.
“Growth is focused around transportation networks, including both interstate highways – I-80 and I-39 – and our railroads,” says Thompson. “The area is further enhanced and served by strong underlying infrastructure that can support significant growth in areas such as water, sewer, electric, natural gas, telecom and high-speed fiber.”
Thompson sees lots of promise in the area’s inventory of build-ready and near-build ready sites, which are primed for development, thanks to city leaders’ proactive growth strategy.
“This might be called ‘if we build it, they will come,’” says Thompson. “The Dixon area is much more ready than most cities of a similar size.”
The city is establishing a business development district (BDD) aimed at prime, future retail developments along the interchange between I-80 and Illinois Route 26.
“Implementation of a BDD will allow a cost-effective means to bring significant retail investment to that area,” says Thompson.
And, intergovernmental collaboration around Dixon is helping to lay additional foundations for growth.
“The City of Dixon has partnered with Lee County, Rochelle and Ogle County to secure a new enterprise zone,” says Thompson. “Our hope is for this zone to provide the most effective economic development stimulus and incentive tools available for business use.”
With varied industries firmly planted in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, the region’s economic garden features resilience and robust diversity. These elements, growing in a business-friendly climate, alongside municipal collaboration and a strong infrastructure, promise another strong season of economic success in our region.
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