Northwest Business Magazine

Transform Rockford: Breaking Barriers for Regional Success

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In the effort to transform our region from the inside, there’s been plenty of work breaking down the “silos” that have kept others from aligning resources and goals. And yet, not everyone is ready to think in new ways.

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Old habits die hard.

It’s a truism with which the team at Transform Rockford is well familiar. For nearly five years, this nonprofit organization has led the charge to strategically improve the Rockford region, and its team has spent much of that time breaking down the “silos” that once kept others from aligning resources and coalescing around a common goal. But things are changing.

In areas like education, business leaders and school officials are partnering up to engage young students and prepare them for the working world. Other metrics reflect improvement as well: there’s been more than $2 billion in capital investments since the launch of Transform; crime rates have dropped; other collaborations have targeted sports tourism, recidivism and workforce development.

But in other areas, there’s still a lot of work to be done, says Mike Schablaske, executive director of Transform Rockford.

“Some days, work is frustrating – Why is this so hard?” he says. “And then sometimes it strikes others we engage with, and they’re like, ‘Why is it taking so long to make this happen?’ It’s because old habits die hard.”

While some silos remain entrenched in Rockford, divisions also remain between municipalities and organizations – including when it comes to economic development. The more traditional view asserts that a new development or attraction for one town is a loss for its neighbors. But Schablaske is part of a growing movement to look beyond any territorial divide.

“We’re going to have to put together assets and resources from multiple jurisdictions in order to continue to appeal to people, organizations and companies that want to come here,” says Schablaske. “Frequently, it might be just one jurisdiction. But really, these assets are not the exclusive property of one jurisdiction or another.”

The value of regional thinking is especially apparent, Schablaske says, in the case of Berner Food & Beverage, which is planning a new distribution center in Rockford. The rapidly growing manufacturer of private-label food products is headquartered in the unincorporated town of Afolkey, Ill., a blip on the map midway between Freeport and Monroe, Wis. Berner has long drawn employees from both cities. A distribution center in Winnebago County will inevitably draw workers from Rockford, Freeport and beyond.

Schablaske says he’s seen data about local commuting patterns in Stephenson County that suggest a heavy flow of people to and from the county. All around this region, he says, it’s not unusual for workers to live in one city and work in another.

“If people are driving from Monroe, or from Lena [Ill.], or even Jo Daviess County [Ill.], that’s a win for each of those communities when Freeport picks up a business,” Schablaske says.

Dr. Doug Jensen, president of Rock Valley College, is also a big believer in regional thinking. His school and Freeport’s Highland Community College together received a $675,000 grant to establish a “pathways” program that would begin aligning curriculum at the community colleges and their feeder high schools – all in an effort to provide students with college credits and industry credentials by graduation.

“The change in mindset, ultimately, means that residents don’t have to leave the region to thrive,” says Schablaske.

Thinking and working regionally opens the door to a broad array of opportunities, adds David Sidney, Project Director for Transform Rockford. School systems, for instance, can borrow best practices from neighbors who pilot new programs. Services like LimeBike, a bike-sharing app, enable people greater mobility to reach their jobs and fulfill other needs – assuming, of course, that the supporting infrastructure and programming are available.

If companies like Berner are partnering with local transportation services in Freeport and Monroe, Sidney asks, why couldn’t Rockford’s major employers collaborate with the local transit system, too?

“I think we have so much talent here to be able to come up with solutions and look to our neighbors, because they’re looking to us, too,” says Sidney. “They say, ‘This looks like a good idea; could we apply that over here?’ And pretty soon we’re solving other problems.”

It all circles back to Transform Rockford’s ultimate vision: Creating a Top 25 community where people are engaged, inspired and leading successful lives.

“Healthy communities in healthy regions participate jointly, knowing that if they aren’t the ones with the big scissors and their neighbor wins, they still win,” says Schablaske. “Mature communities do that. We still have work to do.”
To learn more about the effort to Transform Rockford, visit TransformRockford.org.

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