By Shane Nicholson
Orange barrels and detour signs have become a seemingly permanent fixture of the downtown landscape this summer. From the closure of the 3rd Street bridge leading out of Rockford’s center to the sight of State Street as an urban minefield of manhole covers and unfinished pavement, traveling the obstacle course into and through the downtown area has become part of life for the city’s residents.
Business owners throughout the State Street corridor certainly have room to complain. A number have aired their views over the past weeks about the effects the patchwork street side landscape has had on their business. Customers are unsure where to park, where to walk, and in some cases even if their favorite establishments are open due to the chaotic scenes created by the ongoing capital improvement programs.
But by-and-large businesses are supportive. Downtown Rockford is in need of a face lift in order to continue attracting the sort of investment seen over the past few years. Private enterprise such as Justin Fern’s Urban Equity Properties has brought exciting new living options to a previously neglected space. These new residential opportunities coupled with a thriving bar and restaurant district on both sides of the river, spurred on by growth mechanisms such as the River Edge Redevelopment Zone tax credits, have helped reinvigorate a downtown community that seem strapped for an identity not long ago.
And the city’s ongoing work in these areas, while perhaps a nuisance for now, will be crucial to the ongoing rebuilding and repackaging of Rockford. Study after study shows that infrastructure investment is one of the wisest areas a municipality can invest in, especially in regions such as Rockford hardest hit by the last recession.
Even as owners ponder the long-term solutions needed to attract more persons to the city’s center – namely improving the inlets via East State near Swedes, the North Church/Main Street areas, and the near west side – the mood remains positive that for the first time in a while Rockford has a cohesive plan in place to see out the task. No longer is it a series of Band-Aids on a broken arm; community leaders and local government have embraced one another and stuck true to a path towards revival.
Progress may be slow – and it may cause some headaches – but for the first time in a long time, many feel like downtown’s identity and its sidewalks are coming together.