Transform Rockford: Transform How We Collaborate

In the effort to strategically revitalize our region, there’s a growing focus on the need to truly collaborate – and there’s a prime opportunity to practice it with a new housing plan on Rockford’s west side.

RHDC’s proposed Avon Street development in Rockford is only possible through aligned partnerships, says RHDC vice president Ron Clewer. (RHDC photo)

What if stakeholders in the public, private and nonprofit sectors naturally worked together to achieve a common vision? What if they collaborated, leveraged and shared each other’s resources and strengths? Wouldn’t that be truly transformational?

In the movement to strategically improve the Rockford region, there’s a growing vision for aligning partners to achieve big, transformative changes. Other communities are doing it, but that’s not always been the case here, says Ron Clewer, vice president of Rockford Housing Development Corp. (RHDC), a nonprofit group focused on affordable housing.

“Other communities are more successful at landing federal and state grants and foundation dollars simply because they’re better aligned,” says Clewer, who’s also a member of the Transform Rockford steering committee. “Working together intentionally and strategically is in their DNA.”

Clewer and RHDC are working on an early test to prove it can happen as they look to transform a 14-acre former brownfield on South Avon Street in Rockford. It will require expanded collaboration between nonprofit, public and private-sector leaders and continued guidance from neighborhood residents. If they’re successful, RHDC stands not only to renew the West Gateway/Ellis Heights area but to prove a new model for revitalization.

The proposed development combines affordable housing, a community center, education, in-home health care, an urban farm, recreation and access to social services. It answers many needs in an area where disinvestment, poverty, unstable housing and other stressors have been a reality for decades.

To achieve this vision requires committed partners and the support of those who already live here. So far, groups like YouthBuild, Habitat for Humanity, ZION Development, Crusader Community Health and HomeStart have engaged with planning. Developer Gorman & Co., where Clewer is Illinois Market President, is also in the mix. SwedishAmerican Hospital aims to provide home visiting nursing care. RHDC is setting the table for local, minority-owned contractors on single-family housing.

This Avon Street development traces back to 2011, when the neighborhood was part of a transformational plan. That work was reignited in 2020 when RHDC sold the Concord Commons low-income housing complex to a private developer. In seeking ways to reinvest the proceeds, RHDC hired a consultant to fully assess Rockford’s housing stock and neighborhood conditions.

Their goal: find places where investments in safe and affordable housing, jobs, quality education, access to health care, access to healthy food, and a sense of community were most lacking. They surveyed Rockford’s marginalized and low-income populations for additional insights. The neighborhoods of Ellis Heights/West Gateway and ORCHiD – all located at the edge of downtown – rose to the top.

“We realized the needs for quality and affordable housing there are huge,” says Clewer. “The needs for social services that exist within the neighborhood – as opposed to organizations that merely visit the neighborhood – were also identified by residents. The need for childcare is pressing. The need for after-school youth programming, preferably in the arts, was important, and additional access to healthy food was important.”

Addressing these needs on Avon Street will help to stabilize the greater neighborhood and draw additional investments from private development and grant dollars, Clewer says. Indeed, Habitat for Humanity is already providing critical repairs – new roofs, wheelchair ramps, interior updates – for homes in the surrounding blocks. The City of Rockford is financially backing it.

“The end result here is about creating generational wealth and stability for those who choose to live in this neighborhood,” says Clewer. “Once we finish this site, there are significant numbers of vacant lots for infill in single-family housing.”

Aligning common interests is nothing new in West Gateway/ Ellis Heights. From 2011 to 2015, when Clewer led the Rockford Housing Authority, his team aligned itself with the United Way, the City of Rockford, R1 Planning Council, the West Gateway Coalition, and others in pursuit of a federal grant.

Although the grant never materialized, organizations came together like never before and delivered millions of dollars in private and public investments, says Clewer. The partners created solutions such as new sidewalks and street lights, a new grocery store, and the Walking School Bus, a United Way program in which adults accompany children from their homes to school and back again – in a neighborhood where violent crime and inadequate sidewalks made for a dangerous walk.

The newfound alignment was applauded by many outside Rockford, says Clewer, yet it hasn’t become a norm here. Clewer and his fellow board members hope the Avon Street project might reignite that spirit of camaraderie and shift the paradigm.

“Knowing this model works in other places,” says Clewer, “if we can do this on Avon Street to show it’s possible here, it’s possible in any neighborhood in our city.”

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