Freeport Roundtable: Living the Change

In our latest roundtable discussion, we invited more than a dozen stakeholders to share their vision for Freeport, how it’s taking shape, and what it means to be a region of choice.

If there’s one quality that’s always been true about Midwesterners, it’s their belief that hard work accomplishes big things. From pioneer settlers to industrial powerhouses to our present generation, Midwesterners aren’t shy to roll up their sleeves and work together for a common goal.

Such is certainly true in Freeport, where community leaders have spent more than a decade transforming their city on many fronts. Ghosts of the past may still have their haunts, but that hasn’t stopped local stakeholders from tackling their city’s challenges head-on.

Filled with a renewed sense of optimism and a more tangible sense of growing prosperity, residents of Freeport and greater Stephenson County are starting to see and feel the results of their hard work.

How did Freeport rebuild its optimism, begin the transformation of its community and set a course for a prosperous tomorrow? We sat down with a slate of local stakeholders to learn more about the path to transformation and how it’s taken root in northwestern Illinois.

What factors do you think have set Freeport on its path to transformation?

Gridley: I currently serve as chair of the Greater Freeport Partnership, and I think that group really came together when our community said, “Let’s embrace the future. We’ve got fantastic assets. We have good people. How do we let more people know about us?”

When I came to Freeport in 2010, I remember in my interview someone told me about this loss of jobs and population, and I was a little taken aback. When I pressed further, I found out he was referring to something that happened in the ’80s or ’90s. We’re working to let go of those challenges.

Alvarado: I’ve just started my fifth year as superintendent. It took a while to help people understand that what we have here is truly wonderful. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see that.
We don’t want to be the schools parents choose because they have no other option. We want to be the public school of choice. We’re getting there brick by brick. We have over 300 new students this year. When I started, we were at 3,400 students and dropping. We’ve crossed the turning point. People are starting to choose our district – not just because of our investment in infrastructure. There is a genuine belief that if we provide the right culture and rise to the occasion we become that community of choice. Changes don’t happen overnight.

Haas: The tipping point came when like-minded people said, “This is our time. We are recovering from our losses. We can be different. We can be better.” We want to help people realize we’re done talking about the things that aren’t. We’re talking about the things that are and can be.

Baker: We chose the words “all in” at one point, for very specific reasons. It wasn’t just “Citizens State Bank is in.” All of us are in, because it takes all of us to move the needle.

Schultz Winter: A revitalized Freeport will not look like it did in 1989 or 1992 or 1995. The world has changed. The future is still unfolding. I’ve lived here for close to 14 years. I’m not from here, but I married someone who is from here. People who’ve lived here their whole lives have this perspective of “this is what happened to my community.” People who’ve lived elsewhere recognize this has happened to a lot of communities. We see Freeport’s assets from a fresh perspective and gently remind longtime residents that this is still a fantastic place to live.

What would you say is the vision for Freeport’s future? What are some of those goals you’re trying to achieve, and what kinds of benchmarks need to happen?

Gridley: That’s a really big question. I believe we’re all together on building a welcoming community where people can thrive, where they can grow, where they can contribute, where they can feel safe, where they can live out their life’s purpose. And, though everybody around the table may have differences of opinions, it’s kind of like a family. I think we’re all like-minded in wanting our community to succeed.

Sitting next to me is Ron Schneider of the Freeport Park District. He oversees some beautiful parks, tons of recreation, and a great location within the state. But we need businesses that support the people who enjoy those assets. So, economic development is key. We have tons of opportunity throughout Stephenson County, if we can just get the word out and have people give us a chance. Once that word gets out, it will continue to grow. One of our main goals is to be able to attract strong employers and employers of any size, so we can promote economic development, have more people contributing and do even better things throughout the community.

Alvarado: We adopted the “all in” theme in our district and named it “all in for all kids.” To get there, we need to think about access. Yesterday, I was meeting with an individual because I wanted to start a theater/drama club in the elementary grades. Usually, you wait until high school, but by that point you’ve missed kids who wanted to join but didn’t have access. We asked, “If we do this after school, how are kids going to get to this location?” Sometimes, people don’t think of that. Access is really important. If you don’t think about transportation, that means you’ve already eliminated 50% of the kids that are interested in participating because they don’t have access after school. So, then we’re tempted to say, “We’ll rely on the parents.” Parents have to work. You can’t say, “Well, that’s too bad.” To me, it’s always a question of who’s at the table. It’s important for people to feel that they have access to opportunities.

DeHaven Quast: That’s really important at The Foundation for Northwest Illinois, as well. We want to make sure the nonprofit sector is as respected and included in decision-making as the for-profit sector. Ten percent or better of our nation’s residents are employed by nonprofits. Some of our leading businesses are nonprofits. Mark is the CEO of a nonprofit. The idea of “thriving” is part of our mission statement. We want to help nonprofits develop solutions that enable northwest Illinois communities to thrive. Our team feels very strongly that if you have a strong nonprofit sector, you have a strong quality of life. Education is nonprofit. Health care is generally nonprofit. Arts and culture, certain leisure activities, park districts – all of that is nonprofit. So, if you have a strong, business-oriented nonprofit sector, you have a strong quality of life and you have something to leverage for further economic development.

You raise an interesting point, Michelle. One of the great things about America is that we’re generous in helping others. So, how do we lift people up such that this rising tide lifts all boats in the Freeport area?

DeHaven Quast: In the community foundation industry there’s a growing focus on economic mobility. How do we utilize funds so that we don’t just apply a bandage to our problems? Instead, we’re asking, “How do we use our funds to raise the boat for everybody? How do we start addressing the core issues that are causing the problems?”

Schultz Winter: I think it circles back to opportunity. How do we ensure there are jobs available here and people have the training and the education they need to fill those jobs? We know there are going to be hurdles for some people. How do we provide support so those aren’t insurmountable? I think that opportunity comes down to being able to have choice.

Miller: Coming back to your question of vision, in 2020 the city wrote a vision of what we wanted the city to look like in 10 years, and Mark, it’s almost like you read off my paper. The vision we had in 2020 was this: “Freeport is a destination of choice. Our innovative city boasts an entrepreneurial economy with vibrant and safe neighborhoods. Freeport supports an abundance of educational, cultural and outdoor experiences for all residents including visitors. Our community is connected, accessible and welcoming, and there are opportunities with growth for all.” We have nine areas of priority. That’s how we measure our goals and success within the municipal structure. We set out a 20-year infrastructure plan and we’re really making headway on our water, sewer and our road infrastructure. We’re working on our police force and upping our manpower there, not just in officers but in social workers and technology like license plate readers and shot spotters.

Sutter: It all goes back to longevity. It’s not just ensuring that residents have a wonderful standard of life right now. What does that look like 30 years from now? How do we ensure that the workforce stays well-educated and well-connected? I’m one of the youngest people at this table, and I know there are a lot of people who go away to college and don’t come back. We have this rural/urban divide that’s growing. Freeport has a unique mix of both the rural and the urban. We’re very connected to nature. But we also have this wonderful downtown. People want some middle ground. Not just rural, which is beautiful, and not just urban, which can also be beautiful. Both have their drawbacks. Blend the two together and you have Freeport. The Greater Freeport Partnership’s “Come Home” campaign did an amazing job highlighting local successes. Amy Baker was highlighted. She’s a great example of someone who went away and came back with a collection of experiences. Those add to our perspective and our knowledge – and that contributes to our long-term success.

Haas: When you’re talking about goals and milestones, it’s important to build better ways to communicate. Not everybody is online, but some people want to get their media through streaming rather than broadcast media or newspapers. People are in so many places. We need to connect with all of the people who are in and around Freeport and Stephenson County so that they hear about what’s going on. The good news is that we are doing that, and I think that’s why we’ve reached a tipping point. Continuing to broaden our circle of influence is one of the goals of the Greater Freeport Partnership. As people come back to this city, it’s my hope that the class of 2035 – the children who are just starting kindergarten right now – will graduate high school and have a different vision of Freeport and Stephenson County than someone who graduated in 2015. That’s when we’ll really know our work has found its home. We want that idea of going home to look appealing.

What are some of the victories Freeport has experienced since its turnaround began?

Gridley: This weekend, my family had a dilemma. We couldn’t decide what to do because there were so many options. It’s a significant change from the past. I think there is a spirit of excitement today. When I think of the number of Generation Z individuals who are driving ideas and businesses, it’s exciting to watch. If you’re walking downtown, look at the diverse groups that are walking around.

This morning I was interviewing a family medicine physician who was staying downtown, and he said, “I had no idea this town had so much.” His wife came along for the visit, and he said, “She doesn’t know where she wants to start.” The reality is that we don’t have to go anywhere else for the weekend because there’s so much here. And there’s innovation in our events. Two microbreweries are working together on a half-marathon. And this is a group of people just brainstorming. It’s like, “How do we bring people here to see what we have to offer and make it a fun, engaging environment?” We see a lot of that happening.

Just recently, Mayor Miller told me about the hiring process for our first responders. Several years ago, the number of qualified candidates we could count on one hand. Now, we have more than we can accept. It was good to see so much excitement from our candidates.
If you drive through the area, you’ll see constant renovation. You’ll see some of the places that were eyesores are no longer there and you see older houses have a fresh coat of paint. I think you’ll see in a very tangible way that something is going on here.

Modica: We have a staff of three at the art museum. The only way we’ve been able to do what we’re doing is through partnerships. We’ve always had a view of seeking who we can partner with to achieve our goals. And not only our goals, but the other partner’s goals as well. Looking around this table, we’ve partnered with just about every single person in this room. We know that the arts are an important part of revitalization. And we can be a tool, if you want to look at it that way, to help reach this city’s goals. For the museum, one of our major milestones was our conversion of a vacant property downtown into a very bustling and vibrant civic plaza. We’ve rolled that success into plans for establishing a cultural campus downtown that builds on resources we already have – such as a great library, the historic Lincoln-Douglas Debate Square and Union Dairy – and adds the Arts Plaza and an adjacent building we’re developing into a new arts museum.

DeHaven Quast: I’m at a point in my career where I’ve been able to see this twice now. When I was Kevyn’s age and young and hungry, I left Freeport to go to Rockford and was the marketing director for Discovery Center Museum when the old joke was that downtown Rockford was two strip joints and a bunch of boarded-up buildings – because that’s what it felt like. But there were little pockets sprouting up, and the Discovery Center inside Riverfront Museum Park was one of those pockets. I see that happening here. These little things are blossoming throughout greater Freeport. This is really exciting to see, because we’re getting toward that point where things gain momentum. It’s going to spark more investment and more growth, and I think everybody should be really proud and excited about where we are as a region. There are so many little pieces coming together. I love that microbreweries, instead of competing with each other, are partnering up and sharing audiences. That type of collaboration and synergy is part of the “special sauce.”

Schultz Winter: I think in a lot of communities the arts have always played a key role. It helps create a unique identity that manifests in a physical way and signals the unique identity of the community. I think it’s critical to create a place where people feel safe, where they want to be, and that is aesthetically pleasing. When a business owner is asking, “Where do I want to place my business?” they want to locate in a place that looks great. I think our Chicago Avenue is a huge testament to that. We have a lot of events along Chicago Avenue. The Arts Plaza is right there. I think it helps paint the picture that there’s more to come.

Alvarado: The School District invested its COVID relief funds in infrastructure. We replaced the play equipment that parents would say, “that’s where I played when I was in third grade.” We renovated the theater. It’s so awesome to see alumni who come in and gasp because it’s been transformed into a place of pride. And now we have a new science lab at the high school, an updated swimming pool – those are things that will be here for many years. It also shows the community that we are living our “Pretzel pride.” If our facilities are falling apart, how does that show Pretzel pride? I also think transitioning to career academies at the high school is showing we want opportunities for our students to set goals and think about their futures. So, early on we’re creating pathways for students to think about their future goals and thirst for the idea that, “I want to be bigger than just myself and who I am.”

Part of this city’s turnaround involved the creation of the Greater Freeport Partnership, which brings multiple organizations or functions under one roof. Can you talk about advantages it’s had in this turnaround process?

Gridley: It’s important to note that this is the “greater” Freeport Partnership because we have so much to offer within our surrounding communities. It was very intentional to talk about all of Stephenson County and move beyond the artificial boundaries that are there because we have so much to offer together. Before we came together, we had good people who were working hard but in isolation. And we needed to confront the scarcity of resources for all groups. We asked how we could share resources and a vision of growth. We asked how we could get beyond disagreements. Rather than look at it as a painful conversation, we instead said, “How do we look at this as growing pains? How do we shift our mindset?” By bringing disparate entities together we could harness their resources toward a single vision. It’s been an evolving structure.

I was involved with some of the focus groups and discussion early on, and it doesn’t look today like we thought it would look back in 2017 or 2018. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It shows that we still have places to grow. We are still evolving. We’re still reaching beyond “I can’t do it” and learning how to ask, “How do we do it?”

The beginning was, I would say, a little bit rocky. I think that’s new beginnings for anything. There certainly was a lot of pride, and rightfully so, and ownership with the different entities. It took a little work to build trust and the foundation and say, “We’re doing good things together for our greater community.”

I’ve been really proud of the board of directors and staff. It’s a very widespread group who are actively contributing and sharing ideas. When we went through the pandemic, I think it was because we had these connections that we knew we would make it through. The Greater Freeport Partnership is a work in progress and it continues to be a work in progress. It’s sometimes slower than we like, and sometimes we need to take a little time out and rethink how we want to do something.

Schultz Winter: In piggybacking on what Mark said, it is ever-evolving because the community is ever-evolving. I have a planning background, and we learn to make comprehensive plans as a framework. We’re not saying, “We’re going to do this.” The community and its challenges are always going to evolve and we need to be responsive. So, your solutions need to change.
Our vision – of opportunity and growth – may remain the same. But how we get there is going to be different because different challenges will come along. I mean, COVID was a huge disrupter in our community and the Partnership. We all worked together to get through that. There will be other challenges along the way. How do we continue to work together? The “how” will continue to evolve as the community does, but the vision should still be part of the framework that drives the vision.

Haas: With all of the functions that we serve – as a Chamber of Commerce, a visitors bureau, an economic development organization, a Main Street/Downtown organization – Freeport and Stephenson County really are on the cutting edge. It was obvious during the pandemic, when many visitors bureaus became almost Chamber-like. Economic development became more retention-focused, rather than growth-focused. Everyone asked, “How do we serve our existing businesses and community?” In our office, it was just, “Yep. This is what we are doing now.” It was not, “Who’s taking control of this, who’s doing this side of it, who’s servicing restaurants or who’s helping hotels the most?” or “Who’s giving grants?” Nope. Between our staff and our partners we had one conduit serving our members, businesses and the community.

Sutter: To have one consist voice and vision is really important. If organizations share different priorities, missions, messages and preferences, things get lost. So, when you have a clear voice, it promotes the area and helps you to retain all residents and businesses.

In Freeport, what challenges remain, and how are your organizations approaching them?

Schultz Winter: Freeport and northwest Illinois aren’t alone in their concerns about population loss. It’s a real thing. It affects all of us at this table. It changes how we look at growth and our need to focus on retention. The “Come Home” campaign was built out of the idea that the people we could reach first would have some familiarity with the area. They grew up here and they have family here. We want them to see there are great things happening. There’s beauty here that maybe you’ve forgotten about. So, come home.

Baker: I think communication is also another challenge that we face because we’re a diverse community and not everybody gets their information the same way. And now newspapers are few and far between, so it’s hard to get that message out. You have to reach them in the way they’re receiving information.

Sutter: Unfortunately, we’re in what I would call a journalism desert. While we do have a local paper, it’s owned by a conglomerate that doesn’t bring local news to the forefront. You don’t have a consistent voice in the community. You don’t get the coverage of what’s going on at City Hall. You don’t get coverage of what’s going on with The Foundation for Northwest Illinois, the Greater Freeport Partnership, with FHN, the Park District, the County. You don’t get that holistic view of what’s going on. So, it’s splintered.

Everybody here is nodding because the information they desperately want to share – with their customers, their residents, their stakeholders and people who could benefit – don’t have a consistent channel, a qualified channel or a well-known channel to share that information.

Modica: I think we’re also running into a capacity issue. There is so much more that could be done within arts and culture, but we’re at this juncture where we have to grow in order to provide more services. That’s really hard as a nonprofit in a smaller community because there is a lot of competition for support and funding. We also have an aging community, so our donor base is affected. We’re a private nonprofit, which means that we don’t receive any direct tax revenue. Our support comes from individual or corporate donors, fundraising events and grants. It has to come from grants and all of those sources. So, the question is: “How do we grow?

DeHaven Quast: There’s this “brain drain” of people who leave and don’t come back. There’s also a transfer of wealth issue that’s coming in the next couple of decades. Stephenson, Jo Daviess and Carroll counties – the area we serve – all have aging populations, and a significant amount of wealth is going to transfer out of our region as they pass away. They don’t always make estate plans that keep part of their money within Stephenson, Jo Daviess and Carroll counties. Their heirs have moved on, so that money goes with them. Our challenge is how we manage and utilize the resources we have right now, but also how we look down the road 20 and 30 years from now.

Gridley: Many of the top employers in this community are nonprofits or tax-dependent bodies. While those are great sources of employment, they don’t generate the revenue that supports things like the arts, infrastructure or ongoing development. We need to attract entrepreneurs and help existing businesses to thrive.

I think there is a lot of independence in our communities, which can be a good thing. It can also be a barrier to collaborating. It’s much like working in a big, extended family. You’re going to have arguments and you’re going to have big expectations, but how do we get those out on the table so we can agree this is good for the family and we’re going to move forward together? One of the things I really appreciate about the structure of Greater Freeport Partnership is that some of our biggest partners are the City and County. They believe in our vision. And the other big employers are coming together, too. You might think that FHN and SSM Health Monroe Clinic are competitors. We’re not as much as you’d think. SSM Health Monroe Clinic has a partnership level within the Greater Freeport Partnership because they see the value in investing in the community.

Our challenges are not unique. When we look back in history, how many times have we hit lower points? Yet, we were resilient. People found opportunity and saw the pain as a growing pain. I don’t think the term “surviving” is acceptable. We want to move beyond that. We really want to make this a place of choice.

Alvarado: We have used grant money to incentivize individuals to stay here and strengthen the workforce. We have teachers who are retiring in the near future, yet we are short when it comes to teacher education programs. In the old days, those classes were packed. Fewer people are choosing education today. So, we have to chip away at our problem. We have about 34 non-certified staff – paraprofessionals – within the district who want to become teachers. In two years, if I have 34 new teachers who are homegrown, who live here and want to become educators, we’re committing to each other.

We’re also helping our high school students to choose education. They know we need them. We bring them to our primary classrooms so they can see what it’s like to interact with students and become excited about their future as educators. This is a unique time in education.

Gridley: There’s so much employment opportunity in our area. We need to get the word out so people know that anybody who wants a job will have a job.

Baker: I have children who are out of college and I’m trying to recruit them to come home. They’ll say, “I can go to Chicago and make X dollar amount.” And I say, “Let’s get out this piece of paper.” Day care is this much per week. Parking tickets that you’re going to get because you can’t get a parking space are this much. And I go through this long list with them. By the time we get to the bottom, I say, “Time with your mom, priceless.”

Miller: It wasn’t that long ago that the biggest perception of Freeport was our negativity. Everybody thought we were the worst place. I really believe that’s shifted. The negativity isn’t what it was a few years ago. I think we’ve done a much better job of selling the sizzle.

One of the biggest ongoing challenges is our infrastructure. We have an aggressive plan, and people can see it. Last year we spent almost $6 million on the Chicago Avenue streetscape, and this year we have $10 million going into Adams Avenue. We just did a ribbon cutting for our water treatment plant, which was $13 million. Those are things you can see and they’re helping with that mindset that things are better.

Haas: There’s nothing that drains a forward-thinking person faster than negative speak. I fight it with an attitude of, “I will let you know all of the amazing things that are going on. I will continue to talk to you until you see it.” I know that it’s working. When you walk into Pearl City, just to the west of Freeport, there are a ton of people from that community who work here or who come here to get groceries. Lately, those people are saying, “Oh, yeah, there’s great things in Freeport.” And it’s the same thing in Monroe (Wis.). When you talk to people in other communities, it isn’t, “Oh, you work in downtown Freeport.” It’s, “I saw you guys got this done, or you have this.”

Helms: I think it’s become more symbiotic between our county’s smaller towns and Freeport. It used to be pretty adversarial. There was a time when someone in Pearl City or Orangeville might say, “I’m not going to Freeport.” But it’s the central hub of Stephenson County. And I think everybody’s realizing throughout Stephenson County that we’re much better together than apart. I don’t live in Freeport. I did, for a long time, but now I live in Cedarville, which is just 10 minutes away. I spend a lot of time here. And most people in Stephenson County do.

We’ve heard a great story today. Thanks so much for sharing. To close us out, could you tell us what’s next for your organization? What’s on the horizon, in perhaps the next three to five years? What’s your hope?

Modica: We hope to be open to the public in our new museum and actively involved in all of the downtown events.

Flashing-Clow: We launched the Northwest Illinois Nonprofit Alliance. It’s something we’re doing now, but we’re hoping that in the next three, five, 10 years, we’re making an educational impact on the nonprofit sector.

Schultz Winter: I think some key priorities are making more sites available for industrial development. We also have a large initiative around downtown redevelopment and upper-floor residential units to increase the number of people living downtown. We also want to look at population loss.

Haas: It’s important to share success stories. Be the voice. It starts with a visit where people have an amazing time. Then, they ask, “What would it be like to have a business here? What would it be like to live here? What would it be like to invest here?” Those are our future volunteers and patients and donors. It starts with our communication.

Gridley: I see more investments in advancing technology and infrastructure overall. FHN is looking at significant investments to provide the most advanced technologies.

DeHaven Quast: For The Foundation, it’s leveraging outside resources as well as local resources, to expand our granting opportunities and partnerships. Finding other sources of financial support, among other things, will help lift the boat for everybody.

Alvarado: I want students to have aspirations. I want them to see themselves beyond working at Walmart. And this should go for all kids. If we’re really all in for all kids, how do we create a more encompassing educational system? We can’t expect that only the A and B students are the ones that are going to be successful. It comes back to choice and opportunity. It’s closing gaps for kids and families. We can never, ever give up on students. No matter the background, their ZIP code or their family. But education is always the hardest to change.

There’s new research that says inspiration is the new engagement. Employees who are more inspired can do more because there’s a sense of mission. There’s a sense of belief. There’s a sense of moral imperative that we are put here to add value to the lives of those around us. That’s where education is going.

Haas: I hope that, in the next three to five years, you will continue to see us embrace our interdependence on one another. Because, as we are all talking about collaboration, the only way we move forward is to embrace the fact that we can’t do it alone.