Though some may have seen it as a fly-through kind of city, leaders in Freeport are changing the narrative and endowing their community with a new vision – one that sees the seat of Stephenson County as a true destination for culture, for business and for raising a family.
Aristotle once said that a great city should never be confused with a populous one. Freeport, a city with a population just below 25,000, takes this sentiment to heart. With a $5.6 million infrastructure project nearing completion, close to $140 million in economic development investments, major additions to the city’s arts community and a flourishing health care network, the city affectionately known as the Pretzel City just keeps on turning corners.
“In a lot of cities, the administrators like to kick the can down the road,” says Mayor Jodi Miller. “Our focus is to stop kicking.”
First elected in 2017 and serving her second term, Miller is a lifelong Stephenson County resident who made her home in Freeport 20 years ago. Her time as both a resident and a mayor has given her a unique position to understand Freeport’s past and its current renaissance, as the community undergoes a transformation.
“We’ve really been working hard at reimagining ourselves,” she says. “Our focus is to draw in people of all interests.”
Those interests go beyond tourism, though there is currently a big push in that area as well. For Miller, bringing visitors to the city is a great way to share Freeport’s bright future, but she knows it’s also important to entice people and businesses into making their home here.
Rebuilding from the Inside Out
Infrastructure may not be the flashiest part of her job, but Miller believes it’s an essential part of Freeport’s renaissance. City leaders have been working diligently to upgrade and improve streets and pipelines over the past several years.
To replace nearly 2,300 lead service lines, the city secured forgivable loans by leveraging funds from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s (IEPA) Public Water Supply Program. Not only does this effort upgrade the city’s water infrastructure, but it also stands to improve the quality and safety of the water supply. Last year, crews replaced 327 lead service lines – an amount that’s 13 times the amount replaced in the city of Chicago. The goal, by the end of 2022 is to replace another 700 lines, meaning that, in just two years, more than 1000 lead lines in Freeport will be replaced.
Roadwork is another project that has Miller’s attention.
“We purchased our own paver, which is saving us about 40% of the usual cost when it comes to getting the work done,” she says. “We’ve been resurfacing all over the community.”
One issue that’s finally off Miller’s plate is Home Rule, a legal status that gives Illinois communities local control of zoning, building, safety, public health and revenue. When Freeport’s population dipped below 25,000 in the most recent census, it triggered a referendum on whether residents wanted to retain Home Rule status. Without it, the city would depend upon the state legislature for approval on certain measures. Miller was thrilled to see that roughly 60% of voters supported retaining Home Rule.
“The passage of Home Rule means that the city will be able to maintain its high quality of services without an additional burden to our property owners,” says Miller. “We’ll be able to continue generating revenues paid for by the greater community at large – property owners, renters, shoppers and tourists – rather than relying almost entirely upon homeowners. It also means that we maintain our local governance. Local people will continue solving local issues instead of relying on Springfield politicians and the governor.”
Sweet Home Chicago Avenue
Chicago Avenue is more than just a major artery through the city’s downtown. The street has long been a gathering place and a hot spot for community events. Many of Freeport’s most popular events and traditions have centered around this thoroughfare, including Cruise Night – an event that attracts over 10,000 auto enthusiasts each year. Some of the city’s most beloved businesses and institutions call it home, including the Lindo Theatre and Wagner House, an event space, wine bar and eatery. The beloved Union Dairy ice cream parlor and the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Square are just a stone’s throw away.
The thoroughfare is such an important part of Freeport’s cultural landscape that the street’s vibrant commercial stretch between Clark and Washington streets has been transformed into the Freeport Arts Corridor, an ongoing project that connects Freeport’s historic and cultural landmarks and popular local businesses, providing a throughline that celebrates the city’s arts and cultural scene.
Which brings us back to infrastructure. You can’t build a house without a foundation. The same goes with arts corridors. Chicago Avenue’s foundation has needed significant upgrades for some time, with some fixtures and buried lines being upgraded for the first time in 140 years. The nearly $5.6 million project, which Miller expects will be complete late this year, includes new sidewalks and crosswalks to improve pedestrian safety, new storm drains to prevent flooding, and upgraded signage for travelers trying to navigate downtown.
“The design elements that we are adding will strengthen the aesthetics of Chicago Avenue and will capitalize on its role as our arts corridor,” says Miller, referring to the art installations, murals, bike lanes, wayfinding signage and streetscape furnishings that will help visitors to locate landmarks while beckoning them to stay, play and learn more about Freeport.
For Nicole Haas, brand director for the Greater Freeport Partnership, the Chicago Avenue project paves the way for her role in telling Freeport’s story and sharing its success.
“This project drives home the fact that we are a city for arts and entertainment,” says Haas, whose organization plays a vital role in promoting economic development, business service, and tourism for Freeport and greater Stephenson County. “We’re putting our resources into building an arts and entertainment space that we can be proud of.”
An Anchor for the Arts
If a trip down the Freeport Arts Corridor doesn’t convince visitors that this city takes arts and entertainment seriously, the Freeport Art Museum’s Arts Plaza is sure to seal the deal. Sitting at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Douglas Street, in the heart of downtown, the Arts Plaza serves as the final stop along the corridor. It’s a dynamic public space designed to bring people together, whether that’s through viewing art installations and public performances or simply pausing to enjoy the scenery.
The Arts Plaza features a multi-use, elevated stage that can accommodate anything from concerts and theatrical performances to film presentations and festivals, complete with state-of-the-art sound and lighting. A versatile arts screen spans one side of the plaza, marking the boundaries of the space while displaying temporary art installations and announcements. A large gateway sculpture welcomes visitors to the Arts Plaza, setting the tone and creating an easily visible marker for meetups. And, when there are no performances scheduled, a splash pad and sensory-rich play area exist for friends to gather and children to enjoy.
Because of its generous square footage and multi-use outdoor stage, the Arts Plaza has become the new home to a number of Freeport events, including the Music on Chicago summer concert series that features local and regional acts. Haas has no hesitation about the move.
“Our 2021 Music on Chicago series was the first real event that called people to the Arts Plaza,” she says. “Families with blankets and lawn chairs spread out across the grass in this neighborly setting, saying hello to people after being cooped up. It was incredible to see.”
It was such a success that the Arts Plaza has also become the new home for both Cruise Night and the Pretzel City Brew Fest.
For Jessica Modica, executive director of Freeport Art Museum, the Arts Plaza is a natural extension of the growth that’s been underway since her arrival at the institution 18 years ago.
“We’ve seen a lot of change and growth for the museum since I started here,” she says, “most notably in our work in creating a relevancy within the community.”
Modica believes new partnerships between the museum and other local institutions have helped to foster new opportunities. In her role, a big part of the job involves keeping eyes and ears on the immediate needs of the community and finding a way for the museum to serve those needs.
“That’s where the work for the Arts Plaza was born,” she says. “Before that, we did a lot of work outside the museum’s walls with community partners like the Boys & Girls Club, the YMCA, area businesses and other organizations.”
The land where the plaza now sits was donated to the Freeport Art Museum by the late Jack Myers, an auto dealer and philanthropist who saw the advantage of creating a cultural campus downtown. Sharing his vision of a corridor and plaza that joined together all of the city’s cultural and historical touchstones, Myers and the museum lit the fuse. Modica and the museum kept it burning through new partnerships, raising over $850,000 in funds and in-kind support through donations and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Construction is now almost complete, with the final elements to be put in place in 2024.
“The Arts Plaza is an example of what great grassroots efforts and community building in the arts can do,” says Modica.
For Miller, the Arts Plaza was the spark that set Freeport’s downtown renaissance in motion.
“That was the starting point of our downtown revitalization,” she says. “It gives the city an exciting, arts-based civic space that contributes to community engagement, inspires creativity and does a great job of welcoming visitors to our downtown. It’s going to be one of our city’s cornerstones for cultural enrichment.”
There’s a sense among those involved that the plaza is merely the opening act. The next big movement begins with the Freeport Art Museum relocating to a historic building beside the Arts Plaza. While the museum continues to raise funds for the move, it’s expected to add even more cultural clout to downtown when complete.
“At the moment, the space is pretty raw and wide open,” says Modica, “which is great because that allows us to create the space that will work best for the new museum.”
Maintaining A Healthy Community
While strides are being made to create a healthier infrastructure and cultural scene, the physical health of residents also remains top of mind for local leaders.
FHN, the region’s primary health system, began as a 40-bed facility on Stephenson Street just over a century ago. Today, the organization oversees a community hospital and 17 satellite clinics in five area counties. Together, they serve more than 560,000 people a year, and as the city’s largest employer support more than 1,000 local families.
CEO Mark Gridley has led the charge since 2010. The past 12 years have brought a great deal of change and upheaval, but Gridley remains focused on the needs of this broad region, where residents can just as easily come from an urban environment as a rural community. Gridley believes one of the benefits FHN provides is a sense of community that may not be possible in a larger city.
“Rural health care allows for a deeply personal and caring connection for the providers, staff and patients,” he says. “Quality care is the priority and, while we can be constrained by access to resources, there is an abundance of commitment to each community that we serve.”
It’s both an advantage and a challenge that FHN remains a fiercely independent health care provider in an age when larger health systems are absorbing smaller competitors. While resources can at times be a challenge, FHN holds an advantage that its large competitors don’t: It’s closely tied in with the needs of its community, and it finds support through many avenues. The local volunteer board, made up of residents who live and work in northwest Illinois, is charged with making decisions that benefit not just FHN but the surrounding communities as a whole.
“As an independent, locally focused health care system, the need for governance by community members with a vested interest in decisions is critical,” says Gridley. “These individuals freely give of their time and expertise to help guide our leadership and FHN through difficult decisions while ensuring we remain focused on our vision and the people we serve.”
Beyond health care, Gridley recognizes FHN is a vital part of the region. Every single family in town depends on FHN to provide health care, food for the table, or both. This is a responsibility Gridley does not take lightly.
“FHN is not the latest piece of technology or equipment, nor is it bricks and mortar,” he says. “It is its skilled and compassionate people who are a family focused on caring for families. We are continually supporting our talented physicians and providers in bringing the most contemporary care to the people we serve.”
This vision of a support-minded community dedicated to growth and progress works in concert with the vision of the rest of Freeport leaders, who are striving to improve the quality of life for everyone who lives and works here. In addition to providing vital medical services, FHN stays plugged into the greater Freeport community through a variety of programs like Miles and Minutes, a summer program that incentivizes physical activity to fundraise for local schools. FHN hosts numerous family-focused events that educate parents and children about fitness and nutrition. The team also makes health-focused presentations to thousands of schoolchildren.
If You Build It, They Will Come
With so many pieces of the puzzle in place, Freeport’s future is on the rise. So is the city’s economic development, which is a beacon for future businesses that are seeking a new home.
“We’ve had an estimated $140 million in investment over the past couple of years,” says Miller. “We don’t want to just be a destination city for tourism. We want to welcome small businesses and manufacturing as well.”
One of the city’s newcomers is Hy-Vee, a chain of employee-owned grocery stores with more than 280 locations throughout the Midwest and southern United States. Construction is expected to begin soon on the site of a former K-Mart that sat abandoned for a number of years. “Hy-Vee has invested over $1 million so far in purchasing the building and tearing it down,” says Miller. “Just having it gone has made a huge impact on that area.”
The new grocery store is expected to be the spark that ignites a $12 million redevelopment of the aging shopping center to its north.
“The Meadows is getting a complete reconstruction, bringing in new retailers including Marshall’s, 5 Below and Pet Supply Plus,” Miller says. “We anticipate that by this time next year the entire space will be rented. It’s a huge, huge development for Freeport.”
Greater Freeport Partnership, which ties under one umbrella the functions of a Chamber of Commerce, an economic development council and a visitors bureau, has been at the forefront of shepherding the enterprise zone expansion of the Meadows, retrofitting it for big box retail outlets like Marshall’s, which recently opened.
“We run the whole gamut of economic development, from small and large businesses to primary employers, industrial development and retail,” says Mark Williams, Greater Freeport Partnership’s executive director. “The Meadows investment has already brought in 100 new jobs and new retail choices to people who no longer have to drive somewhere else to get them.”
The partnership also plays a pivotal role in the all-important infrastructure that holds everything in place, using it to strengthen and enhance Freeport’s relationship to greater Stephenson County. Mill Race Crossing, an undeveloped industrial park owned by the county, is getting water, sewer, utilities and roadways thanks to an intergovernmental agreement facilitated by the Greater Freeport Partnership.
“As you invest in infrastructure and improve your product, you better position your community to attract private investment and job opportunities,” says Williams.
Small businesses have good reason to consider Freeport as well. The Greater Freeport Partnership is one of many organizations in the area where new business owners can get direction. Williams is pleased with the successes Freeport has seen in attracting a diverse group of small businesses.
“We have had a good increase in small businesses development,” he says. “Since 2020 we’ve had 29 ribbon cuttings, the majority of which are for women and minority-owned businesses.”
Some of those new enterprises include aesthetician Ashley Jackson Beauty, Higher Grounds Coffee, spiritual health store Rootz & Branchez, and a cultural arts and gift store called Quiet Souls.
As the partnership’s brand director, Haas wants small business owners and entrepreneurs-in-waiting to know that, when they choose Freeport, the Greater Freeport Partnership is a valuable resource in their corner.
“Right now, in a partnership with the National League of Cities, we’re running an educational program called the Community Business Academy,” says Haas. “It’s a 12-week entrepreneurial series helping small business owners to pinpoint different areas that will help them make their business a reality.”
Changing the Narrative
When the city of Freeport incorporated in 1838, it took its name from a free port on the Pecatonica River run by William “Tutty” Baker, the city’s credited founder. Like Baker, the current denizens of Freeport offer something special that makes it worth visiting – perhaps so much that they’d move a family or business to be closer. It’s a message that’s quickly gaining traction.
“We want to attract people to Stephenson County, not through it,” says Haas. “If you exit Highway 20 and make your way into Freeport, you will meet amazing people, see attractions that you never knew existed and make memories that are all your own.”