Diversity sparking Rockford’s future

By Jim Hagerty 

CITY HALL — There is no arguing that former industrial hubs are left with the shells of their glory days, and Rockford, one of the country’s largest manufacturing centers, is certainly no exception.

Cities known for “making things” are being re-industrialized, new identities with a mixture of what’s left and a new ideas, materials and resources. There is still manufacturing here, however.

Estwing remains a Rockford original. Even with a new parent, J.L. Clark is still a flagship “Made in Rockford” producer. Sunstrand Corp., borne from a 1926 merger of Rockford Tool Company and Rockford Milling Machine, is now UTC Aerospace Systems and still calls the Forest City a major nerve center. The present company was formed in 2012 when the Goodrich Corporation merged with Hamilton Sundstrand. Rockford’s industry is changing with the times, and the city government must follow suit for the next generation, leaders say.

“We still have that manufacturing base,” Alderman Bill Rose, D-9, said. “It has changed over the years because of globalization but were are becoming diversified. The medical field is taking hold. We are starting to see more people coming to visit.”

According to Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau CEO John Groh, the number of visitors to Winnebago County increased by 38 percent between 2009 and 2015, producing about $350 million in spending.

This year, regional hotels collected more than $14 million, about $3 million more than last year, growth tied to recent retooling at the Belvidere Chrysler plant to make way for production of the Jeep Cherokee. Past Chrysler retools have also resulted in a boon for the Winnebago County hotel sector.

“We see data that shows Rockford is becoming a better place to live and visit,” Jonathan Logemann, D-2, said. “And it’s nice to be known for one thing. Like Pittsburgh, the Steel City, or Detroit, Motown. But we’ve seen what happens to those towns when they are specialized in one thing. Diversification of the economy is important. Because we are going through a transition economically. We have an opportunity to remake (now) what Rockford will look like in 2o years.”

Janesville-based MercyHealth is making strides toward its $505 million hospital on East Riverside Boulevard near I-90. The care provider is asking the Rockford City Council to waive $200,000 in fees connected to the project in addition to a break of around $900,000 in inspection and permit fees. In spite of objections by Alderman Venita Hervey, D-5, the Planning & Development Committee approved the measure, sending it on for a full council vote.

That aside, leaders say diverse developments will lead Rockford into the future. For Hervey, she’s been leery of the MercyHealth project and is concerned that a large number of people who depend on Rockford Memorial Hospital will lose access to services if they’re moved to the far east side. With the project already underway, the job of aldermen is to foster it for the good of the taxpayers.

“We have some tough decisions to make,” Logemann said. “We have the power of the purse, so the way we allocate funds are important. But there are going to be headaches. But, that’s what we are here for – to prioritize what we believe is of higher importance.”

Rose said seeing projects through and working through debates is vital to continue building on Rockford’s progress.

“We are becoming a hub in the medical field,” he said. “As long as we focus on service to the people of Rockford, we will work these things out.”

As a teacher, Rose sees a need for Rockford to compete educationally on the local, state, national and global levels. It is an uphill battle though. With the dark cloud hanging over Springfield and high school graduates leaving the city, there has never been a better time to come under the struggle to build on the successes already in place.

“We have great colleges and universities,” Rose said. “We have Rockford University, NIU and Rock Valley. An expansion there would really keep kids here. If we continue to build those extensions, the public institutions, we’ll start seeing more young people stay.”

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