By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — A joint funding effort could get the ball rolling to turn one of Rockford’s most storied old factories to Rock Valley College’s industrial training campus.
If the Winnebago County Board approves the measure, the county will join the City of Rockford to improve infrastructure around the Barber-Colman campus on Rock Street, just down river from the forthcoming Amerock Embassy Suites. The city has already given the go-ahead, contingent upon the county’s portion, to secure a $3.2 federal grant to dampen nearly the $10 million cost of the first phase of the 22-acre project. The county would match the city’s portion, funds it will use from the host fee fund. The city will make up the difference in the capital improvement budget.
“I am excited about the collaboration with RVC and the county,” Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara said. “It’s important for three reasons. We are investing in an area that is in need of further revitalization efforts. Developing a workforce shows we are collaborating and listening to one of the business community’s greatest needs. And it’s an investment in our people.”
The Barber-Colman facility has been in local headlines since the Morgan Street Bridge was rededicated in 2013, and the latest iteration of the Amerock agreement was approved. Turning it into a tech school campus is a significant undertaking currently tapped as a $32 million proposal. Rock Valley would likely occupy two buildings at first, eventually moving into four of the nine buildings that remain on the city-owned property.
“Because of the mutual buy-in with the City of Rockford and Rock Valley College, as well as the federal grant money, I am optimistic about the Barber-Colman renovations and the opportunity to set up a new educational pipeline,” County Board member Eli Nicolosi said. “We have done things like this in the past, however, so we need to ensure that this effort continues well past signing on the dotted line as it has a lot of potential.”
Because buildings like Barber-Colman have served as a reminder that Rockford’s beacon as a manufacturing hub as long gone out, community buy-in is as vital as the partnership to start the project.
“The next step is to make sure we get the word out and really market to the community that there are tons of high-paying jobs available with the right training, right here in our community,” Nicolosi added. “If we can do that, then it’s money well spent.”
The county is expected to vote on the matter Thursday.
The area has long been tapped as a brown field of sorts, part of the city that has only recently been ensnared in the efforts to redo downtown. Except for a grocery store and the new bridge, most of the construction in the area of South Main Street has been due largely to the state’s capital improvement plan. Those improvements are also part of a bigger picture, one with deeper stories to tell, some not so pretty. Crime is still a looming concern, but leaders say reducing it starts with eliminating blight to provide the next generation with post-high school tools needed to land those high-paying local jobs.
“We’ve got a lot of people who come out of high school who really can’t read,” Fifth Ward Alderman Venita Hervey said after a recent City Council meeting. “They have to develop those skills and that’s going to help get some of the crime off of the streets. That’s going to help some of this hopelessness that we see.”
The city already has funding from the EPA aside for cleanup at the Barber-Colman site. Soil and ground water testing will be done as part of the initial remediation.
McNamara last month said he was excited about the potential in the project. “To build off the investments the city has made on State and South Main streets; to build off the potential with the Amerock hotel there; the airport is just up the street; the new fire station; the new SwedishAmerican clinic; it’s just an area that’s really starting to take off.”
Barber-Colman made textile machinery at the location from the late 1800s until 1984. The structure was last occupied by Reed-Chatwood, which purchased parts of Barber-Colman after Walter Colman died in 1983. Reed-Chatwood abandoned the property in 2001, leaving it vacant ever since. The city purchased the campus a year later for $750,000, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places four years after that. R.