By Jim Hagerty
DOWNTOWN – To say branding Rockford has been a bit of challenge in the last 20 years is to utter a slight understatement.
Violent crime, a heroin epidemic and poor graduation rates are still outcroppings of social problems a new generation of leaders has been left to solve. High property taxes, brownfields and nearly unmatched jobless rates have tried their hardest to define Rockford as an abysmal city with nowhere to go but upward.
And upward Rockford appears to be heading.
In the 1990s, the city was sprawling east, bringing with it a glimpse of promise that Rockford could connect to a westward trek the Chicago suburbs were making along I-90. The East State Street corridor past Rockford University was suddenly little suburbia – a soccer mom land of cookie-cutter subdivisions, Jeep Cherokees and trendy retail. The east side flourished, while downtown and the west side took a back seat to a reinvented outpost.
But, as Rockford gentrified and cultures changed with the times, the city’s award-winning parks, golf courses, entertainment venues and river remained static. Nevertheless, enter a new era. Graduation rates and test scores are on the rise, a new downtown is taking shape and Rockford is suddenly a new brand.
“It’s about showcasing the assets that make us different,” said Josh Albrecht, director of marketing and public affairs for the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“A great place to visit is a great place to live. If they will invest here, they will live here.”
Last year, tourism alone generated more than $350 million for the region. That spending resulted in 2,800 regional jobs.
Still, it doesn’t take but a Google search to discover what is wrong with the city. Rockford rounded out 2015 as the fifth most-dangerous city in the country according to the FBI, and was recently named the most dangerous among cities with populations under 200,000.
The good more than outweighs the bad though, Albrecht said. For its Cheap Trick Rock and Roll Hall of Fame push and other campaigns, the RACVB was awarded Best Tourism Marketing and Best Branding Initiative at the Illinois Governor’s Conference on Travel and Tourism.
The UW Health Sports Factory and Bring Your Game 2 Rockford (#BYG2RKFD) featuring NBAer Fred VanVleet have edified the city’s place as a leading sports-tourism spot, something the visitors bureau aims to highlight for those outside of city. A ground floor recruitment tool will push those highlights ahead of negative content pinged by search engines.
“We want to trumpet anything that’s positive – aviation improvements, sports (and) a growing housing market,” Albrecht said. “We want to share those stories and change the (negative) narrative.”
Albrecht said dividends from the new tool are expected within the next year.