New Rockford heritage initiative announced

Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) and Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R) have announced plans to brand and promote the South Rockford neighborhood as “Founders Village” to highlight the area’s importance in the ethnic and industrial history of the Rockford Region.

Also involving the Rockford Park District (RPD), the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (RACVB), and South West Ideas for Today and Tomorrow (SWIFTT), the initiative’s long-term vision is to establish a heritage area that serves as a catalyst for economic and social development while it tells the story of the beginnings of our community—from the early Waterpower District factory days to the emigration of European, African-American and Hispanic pioneers.

“We have an opportunity to create a meaningful way to honor the legacy of our forefathers and the early industrial innovators that made us who we are today,” Morrissey said. “Designating and revitalizing the area where this actually happened as Founders Village is an appropriate investment in our future through preserving the past.”

While precise boundaries are yet to be finalized, the Founders Village neighborhood is roughly composed of the area south of the downtown rail yard to the old Barber-Colman factory site, and from the riverbank west to the Booker Washington Center and Tinker Swiss Cottage. This also includes the area on South Main Street where the Ethnic Heritage Museum and historic Graham-Ginestra House are located.

Ald. Victory Bell (D-5) supported the effort by stating: “Southwest Rockford is the region’s next growth sector, and this historic designation will attract the sort of development that will spur that growth. Neighborhood residents are really looking forward to seeing this happen in a way that reflects our heritage.”

SWIFTT Executive Director Maurice Redd added, “The timing of this initiative is perfect since redevelopment momentum in the area is building.”

Key elements of the development of Founders Village will be setting historic design standards for public infrastructure and private investment, leveraging development incentives such as Tax Increment Financing and historic tax credits, and placing interpretive signage celebrating the people and organizations that made history in the area. The city, county, RPD, RACVB, SWIFTT and others will jointly support initial planning and concept design as the vision takes shape.

One important element of the proposed Founders Village project involves the Allen Chapel AME Church, currently on Winnebago Street across from the new County Justice Center. Rockford’s first African-American congregation built the church in 1917 with some financial help from white industrial leaders, but the congregation recently moved to an East Rockford location on Rural Street and put the building up for sale. Winnebago County has offered to purchase the building, which will provide much-needed funding for the congregation, but engineering analysis concluded the original structure is not habitable and cannot be moved intact to another location.

Christiansen said: “It appears the best solution to this dilemma has been to work with Allen Chapel and Pastor Woods to preserve key building features such as bricks, stained glass windows, benches and artifacts, and integrate them into a new interpretive structure on a site in south Rockford that honors the legacy of the African-American church in Rockford.”

Christiansen added that a prominent historical marker will be placed within the landscaping of a parking area to be built on the site.

The RPD has been approached to evaluate the potential for this new cultural attraction to be placed in the vicinity of Booker Washington Center and Tinker Swiss Cottage. A public/private development committee and fund-raising campaign will clearly be needed to fulfill this vision, but locating an ethnic history entity in this area allows for integrated strategic planning and resource development jointly with Booker and Tinker, as well as creates potential for greater patron traffic at all the attractions.

The RACVB views the new venue and the Founders Village concept as a distinctive and marketable community asset. Bureau President and CEO David Preece said: “It’s all about critical mass of interesting and unique visitor experiences. The Rockford region has wonderful tourism product, and this gives us even more to promote, especially in the growing niche of heritage travel.”

Leadership of the Ethnic Heritage Museum have expressed interest in this development and are open to considering the possibilities the venue may present. Museum Board President Shirley Fedeli said: “These developments could significantly enhance our ability to expand our cultural presentations and community reach. If the effort gains steam, and there is a place for us, we would certainly explore the possibility to join the initiative.”

Morrissey claimed the emphasis now being placed on the south Rockford neighborhood by the city and county will jumpstart development of the area in a way that is sensitive to its heritage. “Not only is this the heart of our ethnic and industrial history,” Morrissey said, “but South Main needs to be positioned as the primary gateway to a revitalized downtown. This development will beautify the neighborhood and raise its profile as a great place to live, work and play.”

from the July 11-17, 2007, issue

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