The rapid changes happening all around the Rockford region are fueling a renewed sense of optimism and a growing “sense of place.” Turns out, that evolving identity is a key part of Rockford’s narrative to out-of-towners.
To out-of-towners, the narrative is resounding: “Rockford is making a comeback!” But even locals are still waking up to the transformation that’s been happening around the region at an accelerated pace over the past five years.
“What’s changed in the short horizon is that there’s been much more optimism – and a greater sense of hope and enthusiasm about our community – than I’ve ever felt in my lifetime,” says John Groh, 42-year-old President/CEO of Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “But if you look at a longer time horizon, I think we also see a significant advancement in the quality of place.”
That there’s now a “sense of place” about the city is no accident. Instilling a sense of pride in our region has been a major goal for Transform Rockford, a nonprofit that’s implementing a strategic plan for the region’s self-improvement.
In the five years since Transform Rockford’s launch, there’s been an explosion of business growth downtown and with it, a major shift in mindset, fueled as much by visible results as by a change in narrative. Where negativity once prevailed, residents and visitors alike are discovering Rockford’s “brand” is as much about its assets as its scars.
“For some of our campaigns, the underlying tenants were that this is a real, authentic, original place with ups and downs, and grit and glory, and I think if we were to step away from being true to the good and the challenging, we wouldn’t be authentic,” says Groh.
Nowhere is Rockford’s comeback more visible than downtown. Back in 1999, when Groh was fresh out of school and working his first job downtown, vacant storefronts were everywhere. Now, those blocks are lined with bustling restaurants, retail stores and refurbished loft apartments.
Formerly vacant factories are coming to life and bringing visitors to town – Prairie Street Brewhouse with social events, UW Health Sports Factory with sports tournaments, and the Ziock/Amerock building, soon to be a hotel. And then there are regular events like City Market and Stroll on State that keep people coming back.
Groh believes downtown now is an attraction unto itself. “I think there’s a broader awareness of the strengths of downtown and the appeal of downtown Rockford than there’s ever been in my lifetime,” he says.
That enthusiasm is spreading out around the region, as new employers arrive and existing businesses step up their investments. For Nathan Bryant, President and CEO of Rockford Area Economic Development Council (RAEDC), the region’s “sense of place” is an important tool in business attraction and retention. His major themes: quality of life, quality of workforce and a history of making things happen.
“It’s important for us to own the fact that we are winning,” says Bryant. “But even equally important is for us to get out and tell our story.”
Businesses looking to relocate are especially encouraged when shown recent progress in workforce development, says Bryant. He points to Rock Valley College’s expanded airplane mechanic program and a mechanical engineering degree partnership with NIU, in addition to the new Colman Village that promises to bring an advanced training center into a long-vacant factory.
“This community has a pedigree of solving big challenges,” says Bryant. “That’s our narrative: We don’t care what that challenge is, we’ll solve it.”
But just as important to Bryant is the narrative others hear about our region. Though his team is a major marketer for our region, he believes every resident is a salesman for Rockford.
“When you’re sitting half a country away, and you’re asked about Rockford, you could be the best ambassador and say, ‘I love it,’” says Bryant. “That’s a much better and easier sell than any outbound marketing I could ever hand someone. We need our executives, we need our teachers, we need our leaders to believe it, and then we need, as a community, for that message to be told when we’re outside the market.”
It was positive stories that helped to draw Rockford native Jessica Gissal and Justin Collett to the Rockford region. Gissal’s father, a longtime volunteer with Transform Rockford, had been feeding the couple updates for years. In late 2017, the couple were looking to move from downtown Chicago.
“Hearing that Rockford was becoming more family-focused and rejuvenated, and that there was an influx of young energy back into the community, was a draw for us,” says 36-year-old Gissal. “And looking at real estate prices in the area, it was very affordable.”
43-year-old Collett, a Texas native, is enjoying his adopted hometown. “The only thing I know of Rockford is that it’s a smaller town, it’s easy to get around, it has all the amenities and all the services you could possibly want,” he says. “And, there’s this art/food/outdoorsy scene that’s beginning to bud. I find that really exciting.”
Since moving to Rockford in early 2018, Gissal and Collett find themselves biking with their two children along the Rock River Trail and spending time downtown weekly. It’s a lifestyle Gissal couldn’t have imagined while growing up here, but it’s one that’s pretty familiar after living in Chicago and Madison, Wis.
“People aren’t ashamed to say they’re from Rockford anymore, like they were 10 or 15 years ago,” she says. “You can tell there’s a lot of pride in this town now.”
For more information, visit TransformRockford.org.