(Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau photos)

Transforming Rockford … And Our Region

It’s no secret that the Rockford region could be much greater than it is. Meet the leadership behind the “Transform Rockford” movement, and learn how you can take part.

(Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau photos)
(Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau photos)

Mike Brown has lived in a variety of places, like California, Georgia, Texas and Rhode Island. For the past three years, he’s called Rockford home, as the executive director of the YMCA of Rock River Valley.
“I find that any city is all about the people’s attitudes,” he says. “What prevents Rockford from moving forward is attitude. I’m here to tell you that the grass is not greener on the other side. I’ve lived all over and Rockford is one of our favorite cities. Our kids love school, we always find something to do, and we’re in the center of opportunities all around us. If we want to be a top 25 community, we need to start acting like one and stop waiting for something magical to appear. It’s really going to take attitude change. We’re going to have to talk better about ourselves, and be proud of where we live.”
Brown is one of many volunteers working to make Rockford and the region better. The movement is called Transform Rockford, a long-term planning effort to dramatically improve the social and economic condition of the Rockford region. Transform Rockford is spearheaded by a group of business leaders, civic officials and community residents.
“The word ‘transform’ means, if we we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it in a large way,” says Mike Schablaske, Transform Rockford executive director. “It’s not improve Rockford or make it a little better. It’s transform. We’re going for an inspirational change. It can and should be a lot better.”
Transform Rockford held its first public meeting in November 2013 at the Coronado Performing Arts Center. Since then, about 3,000 people have attended 51 meetings to give input about what they want Rockford to become. In early October, Transform Rockford held another session at Auburn High School, updating the community on its yearlong findings.
The goal is to become a top 25 community by 2025. The focus includes embracing diversity, fostering a crime-free culture and delivering an excellent education to all children. Other focal points include vibrant neighborhoods and cultural and recreational amenities, a robust infrastructure and a strong economy built on manufacturing, logistics and agribusiness.
“The energy of the community will be critical in making this successful,” Schablaske says. “It doesn’t make things happen fast; the dramatic change we’re going for isn’t going to happen overnight. But it does make it powerful in the long run.”
Mike Dunn is sold. He heads up one of Rockford’s greatest assets – the airport. According to a 2013 study, the airport’s economic impact is $1 billion. That number could double, after the airport takes actions that are now in planning stages. The airport is embarking on a $100 million construction project that includes road improvements and terminal reconstruction.
Perhaps the most exciting news is that AAR Corp., the third-largest global maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility based near O’Hare International Airport, will open a new facility at Chicago Rockford International Airport in early 2016 that will employ about 500 people, with help from more than $15 million in state incentives. The Rockford area is home to about 100 aerospace companies, including UTC Aerospace Systems, Woodward Inc. and B/E Aerospace.
“Transform Rockford is a great idea,” Dunn says. “For too long, corporate investors have not paid attention to the things going on in this community that they should have been. Now, we have a team of corporate leaders, both active and retired, looking at the community and region. Anytime people want to step up and invest in the community and demonstrate this type of leadership, it’s a positive thing. It’s long overdue and very welcomed.”

In the Beginning

The idea for Transform Rockford started with Tom Gendron, a Rockford native and chairman of the board and CEO of Woodward Inc. Founded in Rockford in 1870, Woodward makes and services a wide variety of energy control and optimization systems. Although it’s now headquartered in Colorado, it’s building a $200 million manufacturing campus in Loves Park that will create hundreds of jobs over the next five years. Despite the good news, Gendron still felt uneasy when asked what he would say to other companies thinking about moving to the region.
“I see dysfunction,” he said at the time. “Whether in the private or public sector, people aren’t always trusting each other, working well together or sharing in activities to better the community. I think those are things we need to overcome, as a community, to make progress.”
Schablaske, who worked with Gendron at Woodward, was in attendance. “Tom wasn’t sure he could recommend the community overall,” he says. “There were challenges facing the community and a frustration that outcomes weren’t what they should be. Individuals and organizations weren’t realizing their dreams. It was hard to imagine a failed Rockford and a successful Woodward. They’re tied together somewhat. He didn’t feel terribly engaged and wanted to do something about it.”
Gendron needed someone to oversee the Transform Rockford project and tabbed Schablaske as executive director. A Chicago native, Schablaske graduated from Rockford University and has called Rockford home for nearly 30 years. “We had made business transformations before, but this was a whole scale that, frankly, I have not seen before,” Schablaske says. “It took me a long time to process the concept. But I believed in it and I believed that the community could use it.”
Dunn has come to know Gendron and Schablaske in the past year. “I have the greatest respect for both of them,” he says. “They are two of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever met. They’re going out of their way to be inclusive and are open to what others have to say about the process.”
There’s a steering committee comprised of passionate community members: Ken Board, Pilgrim Baptist Church; Rob Funderburg, Alpine Bank; Gendron, Woodward; Bill Gorski, SwedishAmerican Health System; Robert Head, Rockford University; John Holmstrom, William Charles; Bobbie Holzwarth, Holmstrom & Kennedy; Jim Keeling, Hinshaw & Culbertson; LoRayne Logan, Workplace Staff and Search; Paul Logli, United Way; Doug Perks, Eclipse; Peter Provenzano, SupplyCore; Dave Rydell, Bergstrom; David Schertz, OSF HealthCare; and Tim White, United Technologies Aerospace Systems.
“Each one of the steering committee members has some stake in the community, and they will benefit if the community is better and healthier,” says Schablaske. “They were quick to get on board. They’re great people and great counsel to me. We’re fortunate to have them on board.”
Transform Rockford has been funded, so far, mostly by contributions from Woodward Inc. and Alpine Bank.
“This is not about money. Money is not going to fix this,” says Funderburg, Transform Rockford vice chairman. “It’s going to be the work of thousands of people who live here who are going to fix this.”

Just the Facts

Funderburg got involved after a series of meetings with Transform Rockford leaders, starting in December 2012. Gendron presented the ‘brutal facts.’ Although Funderburg had seen them before, seeing it all together “made me sick to my stomach,” he says.
The brutal facts were derived from the work of experts who have studied the community, using information from the Rockford Health Council and other studies and data. The research suggested that three general categories must be addressed to make a great community: social, economic and environmental.
Among the brutal facts about Rockford:
One-fourth of income in the city comes from government programs.
29 percent of Rockford’s youths live in poverty
The rate of violent crime was higher than the national average in 2011.
50 percent of Winnebago County’s 2008 births were to unmarried mothers, the highest since 1980.
63 percent of residents have a high school education or less. The national average is 57 percent. High school students graduating within four years is 23 percent below the state average.
“The community has had a tough 50-year period, without much of an uptick,” Schablaske says. “You can understand why people would have a mindset that things aren’t going well and are frustrated with outcomes. The issues aren’t limited to the city. It’s a regional issue. Underperformance is one of the biggest challenges we face, as well as self-perception. It’s hard to argue that we’re the best at safety, education and health, yet. In the meantime, we can start to learn to collaborate.”
Transform Rockford came up with nine shared values as the foundation for a civil and cultivating environment. They include inclusion, caring, respect, transparency, unity, ideation, responsibility, trustworthiness and interconnectedness.
“Believing in the process is a powerful thing,” Schablaske says. “We must be strong enough and good enough to delve into root causes. We must consider initiatives that have worked here and elsewhere. Tough conversations and analysis must occur on related subjects like poverty, education and personal responsibility. Most of all, we need to engage the great people of this community to do this work. This is why Transform Rockford uses shared values to guide behavior in challenging moments. Together, we can do this work with respect for one another and our community.”


The number of people who have stepped up to lend a hand to Transform Rockford is impressive. The organization has a list of 3,000 names of people who have asked to be informed. More than 1,400 people turned out for a community session last November. More than 300 are active volunteers, many serving on various committees.
“It’s been amazing,” Schablaske says. “All sectors – public, nonprofit, faith community – are involved. We’re purposeful in getting people from all backgrounds. I’m a firm believer that putting everyone together will get us better results.”
Volunteers like Lawrence Taber, manager of the Holiday Inn Express. The Chicago native has lived in Rockford for 14 years. When he heard about Transform Rockford, he started emailing community leaders to find out how he could get involved.
“I could tell this was something positive and different,” he says. “I have a passion to see change. I feel this is where I need to be. I have a large family and I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. It frustrates me when people complain about Rockford and then don’t do anything about it.”
For the past year, Ron Clewer and Jazz Keyes served as co-chairs of that vision drafting committee. Clewer is executive director of the Rockford Housing Authority and recruited Keyes, who runs a consulting business.
“We, as a community, can’t say that no one cares,” Clewer says. “There are a ton of people who care. The community is entirely invested in improving our outcomes. These meetings continue to show that. But it’s going to take the masses to change the community. I love the way it’s coming together. People are really believing that we can do this.”
Keyes says: “I’m an advocate for things that will improve our community for us and our children. I’d like to see a community where shared values are present in all residents, where children are set up for success. As a mother, I want to be excited about my children’s education and be able to go outside and be safe.”

The Future

The Transform Rockford organization is starting to grow. The group has office space in the SupplyCore building in downtown Rockford. Transform Rockford has added three staff members in recent months.
Program Director Nancy Perry is responsible for facilitating the work of Transform Rockford’s volunteer-led teams. Patrick O’Keefe is the new communications manager, who works to develop, execute and manage the communication strategy. Office manager Sue Askeland leads day-to-day office and administrative operations. “Increased space and additional staff will allow us to better share the story of what we’re doing,” Schablaske says.
Schablaske says 2015 will be a pivotal year for Transform Rockford, with the focus squarely on strategy and planning. “We’re wrapping up the visionary stage and moving into strategy,” he says. “We’re going to continue recruiting volunteers, sharing information and drafting statements for public review.”
In the past year, Schablaske has heard from people all over the region, from meetings held at Winnebago High School, Pilgrim Baptist Church, Wesley Willows, Carpenter’s Place, Rockford Country Club, Orton Keyes, the YWCA, Belvidere Central Middle School and dozens of other locations. “I’ve enjoyed building relationships and seeing other relationships blossom,” he says. “I’ve seen people crossing over and aligning their efforts, and that’s powerful for the community. To be in the same room when that’s occurring, that’s pretty cool.”
Earlier this month, more than 300 people attended a Transform Rockford celebration held at the new Auburn High School field house, to learn about the next steps in the process. Despite a steady rain on a Monday evening, leaders were encouraged by the turnout. “People see this is very authentic and genuine. They see people leading this effort who truly want what’s best for the community,” Keyes says. “This is truly revolutionary.”
In November, Transform Rockford plans to announce which leaders from business, public, nonprofit and faith group sectors have been designated to define strategies to improve the region’s social and economic status.
“We’re farther ahead than we’ve ever been before,” says Funderburg. “Attitudes have to change and that’s already starting to happen. I couldn’t be more pleased with the direction that Transform Rockford has taken.” And it’s just getting started.