By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — Visitors spent more than $300 million in Rockford and Winnebago County last year, the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau said Tuesday.
What that means is that tourism in Winnebago County is growing faster than other major counties in the state. The all-time high of $353 million spent here represented a 39-percent uptick since 2009. The mark was bested only by growth in Chicago and Cook County. Winnebago County had a previously set average of 29 percent.
Last year’s tourism growth has also directly affected nearly 3,000 jobs, a 2.4-percent increase, and $85.51 million in payroll. Local tax receipts showed $6.23 million, while state levies brought in $19.2 million.
“Tourism plays a critical role in our regional economy and the statistics from 2016 prove that. Most importantly, visitors to our region bring in new revenue and help us create and sustain jobs, at a time when the state is working to strengthen its finances,” Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara said. “All our residents should be proud that investments we’ve made in our tourism infrastructure are paying off.”
The boon is still being felt by local merchants, who continue to create a diverse mechanism to attract a wide variety of visitors. David Anderson of Anderson Japanese Gardens, who chairs the RACVB board, says he meets people from across the globe.
“The economic impact of tourism on our local economy cannot be overstated,” Anderson said. “Visitors are helping to grow our community.”
And as tourism grows, so does other areas of economic development.
“Let’s not forget that tourism is a quick, clean and efficient form of economic development,” Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney said. “Seeing tourism grow faster here than in all other similar Illinois counties is fantastic and something we should build on.”
Last year was not without its milestones. A host of public-private partnerships lent to a host of successful events that had Rockford’s streets swelling with activity.
Stroll on State: In only its fourth year, the award-winning event drew a record 75,000 people who packed downtown to help city kick off the Merry & Bright holiday season. Complementing events include Shop on State, 12 Bars of Christmas and Rockford River Lights.
Forest City Beautiful: A collaborative spearheaded by the RACVB, Forest City Beautiful has been responsible for an array of downtown beautification projects. The program has installed around 100 planters, sculptures from world-renowned artists and landscaping.
Sporting and Entertainment Events: Major baseball, soccer, softball, ice skating, basketball tournaments are amateur sporting mainstays in Rockford. The Rockford IceHogs are the Chicago Blackhawks American Hockey League affiliate, attracting fans from all over the Midwest while the BMO Harris Bank Center, Coronado Theatre, Starlight Theatre and the Nordlof Center are just a few of Rockford’s venues that feature of host of local, regional and international entertainment events.
“While our reputation as a sports destination continues to grow, more and more people are coming as leisure,” RACVB President and CEO John Groh said. “Many people come to spend time with their kids at our family-friendly attractions, outdoor adventure parks, cultural events and more.” R.