What’s Local: Expanding Rockford through entrepreneurship

By Jim Hagerty

ROCKFORD — When a company shuts its doors, the employees often find employment elsewhere. When isolated closures accumulate and become a sign of a systemic problem, the result can be devastating to a community.

Rockford is no stranger to the latter. Once one of the nation’s largest manufacturing centers, it offered a middle-class lifestyle for just about anyone with drive and willingness to join the working class.

And Rockfordians gladly took part. For decades, little education was required to work in the city’s factories, and Rockford flourished. The city worked hard and played even harder. Then came the 1980s.

By the end of the decade, Rockford’s wheelhouse of manufacturers was gone. Early victims of de-industrialization were the first to go. Some moved overseas; acquisitions took the rest. And while some of the workforce followed, many became human remnants alongside brick-and-mortar shells of a time long passed.

Also lingering is a mentality common to the American Rustbelt, an employee mindset that once defined its success. But, millennials far and wide are now realizing that depending on the nation’s employers for their future is fleeting at best. Or are they?

“We have the opportunity to set an example and make changes,” Mercedes Cherelle said.

A hairstylist by trade, Cherelle, 29, grew up in Rockford but spent 10 years in Atlanta learning her craft. She returned two years ago with a marketable trade but says that her true ability to impact the community will come with more.

Cherelle, who works out of Angles of Beauty near CherryVale Mall, says there needs to be more young people who understand that the opportunity to emerge from poverty lies within themselves. They just need some coaching. Anyone who doesn’t believe that can ask her about her background. Cherelle was born to a 15-year-old mother who raised her in Rockford’s housing projects but had planned to make it outside of Concord Commons. Today, Cherelle’s mother is working on a doctorate degree and forming her own non-profit organization.

“My mother is my biggest supporter,” Cherelle said.

Ater all, it was Mom who taught her how to make her own way. When there are no jobs to be had, the entrepreneur said, the game is not over. Too many Rockfordians are still waiting for the next big employer to make a saving stake in the community. Perhaps that will happen one day. Unitl it does, the young leaders need to create opportunities for themselves. And the time is now. Rockford is a developer’s market.

Builders are buying distressed properties for next to nothing, creating a growing mixed-use property stock that benefits a healthy commercial landlord community. That’s an indicator for young business owners like Cherelle that true change is made by those with a stake in game — business owner-operators.

While she is still eyeing property for purchase, she understands most sustainable business leaders have one thing in common: they own real estate, most notably their buildings in which they do business.

And as more young people she speaks to take that leap, the healthier the Rockford landscape will be.

“When I moved to Atlanta, I noticed that people shop at local businesses,” Cherelle said. “People in Rockford tend to travel to the big-name stores verses going to local markets for fresh fruits and vegetables, or to a local hardware store. But it is important for people to do that so they put their money back into Rockford.”

With a changing of the guard at City Hall this year, new leaders understand the need to curb Rockford’s crime problem. And it is a problem. In 2015, the FBI ranked Rockford the fifth-most-dangerous city in the country. Rockford has also landed on media lists of the nation’s worst places to live and raise a family. Publications like Forbes have had field days highlighting what’s wrong with the city.

“Forbes has a lot of bad things about Rockford,” said Phoenix Traders owner Jim Phelps. “But one of the things it was right about is that it is a perfect opportunity for entrepreneurship.”

Phelps bases his assessment on his 12 years as a fair-trade retailer on 7th Street. A fifth-generation entrepreneur, Phelps found himself downsized from a corporate engineering job in the early 2000s. But, armed with a business degree and practical acumen, he saw potential in a city he could have left behind after leaving the corporate world. He saw what Rockford could be and was willing to weather the storm along the way.

“Rockford needs to stop chasing smokestacks,” Phelps said. “Instead of trying to bring things like Boeing here, they need to see that the real expansion is going to be through small businesses and entrepreneurs.”

Cherelle sees the same opportunity, which is why she’s hosting the Second Annual Natural Hair Beauty and Health Expo, Saturday, July 15 at downtown’s Memorial Hall. The program is centered on Cherelle’s craft. However, it is being organized by a group of more than 20 local businesses owners who are emerging as leaders to show the next generation the importance of building a brand regardless of their skills and talents.

The program will also feature live entertainment. For more information call 678-283-9996. R.

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