Signs of an economic recovery are popping up around our region, in what promises to be a good year for growth opportunities. Learn what projects are underway in five area communities.
The signs of an economic recovery are emerging. Many communities across northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin have seen positive growth over the past year, including several developments that are currently taking shape.
Finally, good things are happening in Rockford. The city has witnessed extensive economic growth in recent years, and the Transform Rockford movement is doing its part to bring together business and community leaders. As part of this movement, citizens are sharing their thoughts on what Rockford needs to flourish.
At the same time that Transform Rockford is inspiring a positive outlook, several local developments are fueling the positive energy with positive action.
Michael Nicholas, president of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council (RAEDC), points to two of the largest developments underway: the $200 million Woodward expansion in Loves Park, Ill., and the AAR Aviation Maintenance Facility at Chicago Rockford International Airport.
The latter project is built by Chicago-based AAR Corp., the largest aircraft maintenance company in North America, and third largest in the world. Its new 200,000 square-foot maintenance and repair hangar in Rockford is estimated to create up to 500 new jobs over the next five years. The facility will operate 24 hours a day, providing service and support for military and commercial Boeing aircraft. Rock Valley College is building a facility at the airport for its expanded Aviation Maintenance Technology program – an asset that can provide qualified employees for AAR.
It’s no mistake that some of Rockford’s most significant new projects are related to aerospace. With nearly 200 aerospace suppliers within 150 miles of town, RAEDC has spent several years promoting this industrial cluster, which includes giants such as UTC Aerospace Systems and Woodward Inc.
According to Nicholas, the growth of Woodward, which produces aircraft fuel systems, has been one of the city’s most successful development projects.
“Woodward’s investment in the Rockford region with a second campus in Loves Park is significant,” he says. “The company expects to invest nearly $300 million and double its workforce here by 2021. That alone is good news – potentially becoming Winnebago County’s largest manufacturer. But the ripple effects benefit the whole community. We’ve begun to feel that already, with the 800 construction jobs created by the project. In the years to come, Woodward’s growth will boost the housing market, the retail sector and the wider high-paying aerospace industry.”
Elsewhere in town, there are positive signs of change.
“Our health systems also have been trying to find a way to merge,” Nicholas says. “Rockford Memorial Hospital and Mercy Hospital recently merged, and SwedishAmerican Health System merged with the University of Wisconsin Health System.”
The downtown area is experiencing a growing renaissance. A new indoor sports complex at a former Ingersoll building is slated to be completed by summer 2016. The project is part of the Reclaiming First initiative, and is expected to offer eight basketball and 16 volleyball courts. Urban Equity Properties is restoring several once-neglected properties in downtown and the Mid-Town District. Plans also are underway to renovate the historic Ziock-Amerock building on South Main Street. The renovation project – which has an estimated cost of around $50 million – will be undertaken by the Milwaukee-based property management company Gorman & Co. The goal is to establish a 150-room hotel complete with a 20,000 square-foot convention center that can be used for banquets and trade shows.
“The whole downtown area is getting a rebirth,” Nicholas says. “It looks good. Rockford is at the top of the list for areas of the country that are creating a lot of entry-level jobs. We have enough things going on in the hopper to keep on pushing unemployment down.”
Andrew Janke, economic development director for the Greater Beloit Economic Development Corporation, has no doubt that Beloit’s future is bright.
“I’m quite confident in our growth and the number of projects we have in our pipeline,” he says. “The economy is in good recovery and we are well-positioned for future expansion, especially since we do sit at three interstates. We also have a great workforce and aspects such as affordable real estate that will continue to attract people to the area.”
Pratt Industries, a sustainable packaging company, is expected to open a new corrugated paper manufacturing facility in Beloit’s Gateway Business Park. The $52 million project will involve the construction of a 350,000 square-foot facility that sits on 40 acres. The site is expected to open in January 2016.
Chicago Fittings, a manufacturer of hydraulic, natural gas and LP fittings and risers, is moving from Belvidere to Beloit. Construction on the 30,000 square-foot building in the Gateway Business Park is expected to begin in April.
Additionally, NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes has begun construction of a new 50,000 square-foot headquarters on Gateway Boulevard. The company produces medical radioisotope molybdenum-99, which is used for detecting heart disease and determining stages of cancer progression. The company obtained a $52 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Other major Beloit projects include the $38 million renovation of Beloit Ironworks. The former industrial complex is being transformed into a modern manufacturing and office center. When it’s complete, the facility will include a new center spine road that will create additional access and parking. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation is providing a $1 million Idle Industrial Sites Grant to support the project.
Rochelle has long been the city known for “three T’s,” according to Jason Anderson, the city’s economic development director. Soon, the city will be known for a fourth ‘T.’
“We have been traditionally known for trucks, trains and technology,” Anderson says. “Now we are going to be known for tomatoes as well.”
Appropriately dubbed “Project Red,” this massive development involves the construction of a new facility for CG Greenhouse, an agri-business that distributes produce throughout greater Chicagoland. Working with the City of Rochelle, the company is constructing a greenhouse capable of producing hydroponic tomatoes on 20.5 acres. Because the growing center is completely indoors, vine-ripened tomatoes can be grown year-round.
The building is expected to encompass up to one million square feet of greenhouse space in the future. According to Anderson, it’ll be the largest commercial greenhouse in Illinois. The new building will be complete by summer 2015, with the first plantings being set in August and the first harvest in October.
“The greenhouse will grow fresh vegetables throughout the year, with no chemicals or insecticides used,” Anderson says.
A recent city project included work on two Class I railroads – the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad. In fall 2014, the city completed three Rochelle Railroad projects that totaled more than $1.2 million. According to the City of Rochelle website, the expansion and improvements have enabled local tracks to move more than 10,000 railcars per year.
“Another big thing is the new branding initiative going on in Rochelle,” Anderson says. “Seventy-five percent of the people who work here don’t live here. There’s a huge migration of people coming to work here, and there’s tremendous potential as we look at ideas under our new brand initiative to create more housing.”
Stephenson County’s largest community is on a positive economic path, with new businesses opening and several large-scale projects completed or in the works.
“The economy is gradually improving,” says Freeport Mayor Jim Gitz. “This is now in a transition…. It’s a time of transition in which Freeport will diversify its economy. The economy of the future will involve small manufacturing, value-added agriculture, computer-based services and tourism. It will require a skilled workforce.”
Locally, manufacturing has experienced its challenges, but Gitz doesn’t see Freeport’s industrial identity going away any time soon. In the future, though, Gitz sees great potential in Freeport’s tourism assets.
“In general, northwest Illinois is a diamond in the rough and an undiscovered attraction,” he says. “For example, look at Galena. They took a sleepy little town and did magnificent things with it. If a small and unique city like Galena can do it, why not a city like Freeport, as well?”
One of those tourism assets is the Jane Addams Trail, a recreation path that stretches from Freeport to the Wisconsin state line. In Wisconsin, the trail continues as the Badger State Trail and extends to Madison.
Two of the largest projects under discussion are the restoration of Amtrak service and the widening of a 43-mile stretch of U.S. 20 between Freeport and Galena. The highway receives a huge amount of traffic, Gitz says, and from a commercial and safety point of view, the potential impact is significant. Discussions on Amtrak service are largely influenced by budget actions in Springfield.
Freeport is also investing $20 million into improving its water and sewer system. This summer, Gitz says, $7.9 million will be spent to super-size the city’s water mains.
“We intend to improve the infrastructure and livability of Freeport,” he adds. “Many of the building blocks are already in place. I believe we should take advantage of all the opportunities around not only Freeport, but the region. This is an incredibly beautiful part of the state.”
Jarid Funderburg, executive director of Growth Dimensions in Belvidere, has a rosy outlook for his city, where an economic recovery is driving new opportunities.
“As our economy recovers from the Great Recession, Belvidere and Boone County have been working tirelessly to create a stronger and more accessible infrastructure for its residents and business development,” he says.
Construction on two major healthcare facilities – Rockford Health System Clinic and Davita Clinic – is wrapping up this spring.
“The Rockford Health System Clinic will be a convenient care clinic offering flexible hours for patients as well as access to an incredible network of physicians,” Funderburg says. “DaVita Clinic is a leading provider of dialysis services. This is especially great news for our community. Not only do we now have a local presence of all three major healthcare providers, including SwedishAmerican and OSF, but we will have a dialysis clinic that will meet the needs of patients right here in Belvidere. No more driving to Rockford, Madison or the Chicago area for this treatment.”
Meanwhile, Manley’s Belvidere Ford Lincoln auto dealership – the world’s second-oldest Ford dealership – is moving from its current location downtown to a new space on North State Street.
“The dealership is building a state-of-the-art facility to showcase its impressive line of vehicles and grow their incredible customer service,” Funderburg says. “They plan on opening the doors later this summer.”
Late this year, Belvidere drivers can also travel a new full-access interchange at Interstate 90 and Irene Road, on the city’s southwest side.
“This tollway interchange will open the floodgates of logistical opportunity for our industrial district,” Funderburg says. “We have been receiving dozens of inquiries and anticipating dozens more into the possibilities of commercial and industrial development. We are also focusing on retail and commercial development on Illinois Route 173, in the charming village of Poplar Grove, located in the northern part of Boone County.”
Belvidere, it seems, is poised for a strong year of growth. “Our phones are ringing off the hook for all sorts of business,” says Funderburg. “We are all very encouraged and our spirits are high.”