Rockford has many advantages to play up, and firms are taking notice. Learn why this city is feeling a renewed sense of economic prosperity.
Where are you 15 minutes after you leave work?
It’s a question Nathan Bryant, President/CEO of Rockford Area Economic Development Council (RAEDC), likes to ask when selling the Rockford area.
It’s especially poignant when talking with business leaders and site selectors in the Chicago area.
“I know where I am, 15 minutes after work, and it’s anywhere I want to be,” says Bryant. “I know where you’re at, and it’s either still on a train, or in a car trying to drive 40 minutes to get where you want to be.”
Quality of life is an important advantage, but that’s only a small portion of the sale. Rockford has many tactical advantages to play up.
“What we don’t do is sell what everyone else is selling,” Bryant adds.
And that means looking beyond the basics. Everyone has infrastructure, sites and incentives. The value add comes in Rockford’s ability to expedite investments, grant a lower cost of living and solve difficult problems. It doesn’t hurt that the region has known logistical advantages, too, including a network of interstate highways and the 22nd busiest cargo airport in the nation.
“At our airport you can land, get product off the plane, get it on the ground and shipped faster than you can in any airport in Chicago,” says Bryant. “You can get it into a warehouse faster, and you can get it into and moved around Chicago faster.”
Adding to it all is the region’s ability to respond to talent development, an area where Rockford has had several successes over the past decade.
“It would be foolish to say that, whatever question you have we already have the answer,” says Bryant. “But what we do have is a pedigree of saying, ‘Give us your problem, because we’ve already solved all of these other problems, so it stands to reason we can help you, too.”
The region’s community college, Rock Valley College (RVC), has had numerous successes, including doubling down on advanced manufacturing offerings and boosting its aircraft maintenance program when a new aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul employer came to town.
RVC also introduced a four-year engineering degree in partnership with Northern Illinois University, allowing local students to earn a degree at a lower cost while staying in Rockford. Students are granted internships at local companies and promised job interviews upon graduation.
Additionally, plans are underway to transform a vacant factory along the Rock River into the Colman Village, where people can live, work and receive advanced technical training for local industries.
“When it comes to talent development, we’re competing with communities that are about four or five times our size,” says Bryant. “We’ve heard that over and over again, that communities our size are not doing what we’re doing.”
Firms are taking note.
In the first half of last year, the Rockford region delivered more than 1.9 million square feet of new construction, most of which was direct build-to-suit for local industries. This included large warehouses like the new 600,000-square-foot Berner Foods logistics center off Interstate 39. All of that growth put Rockford well ahead of the Chicago area’s 19 submarkets, including McHenry and DeKalb counties.
Earlier this year, Collins Aerospace, a giant in the aerospace sector and a longtime Rockford employer, announced it’s doubling down on its own local investments. Work is underway on what Collins is calling The Grid, a $50 million high-voltage lab where it plans to test high-power generators for aircraft as part of the firm’s push to design a hybrid gas-electric airplane engine.
All across the region, Rockford is feeling a renewed economic prosperity. The manufacturing sector – which comprises close to a quarter of all local jobs – has grown its employment by 24 percent over the past eight years, adding roughly 6,400 new jobs, Illinois Department of Employment Security. And in 2017, local firms churned out more than $45 billion in gross domestic product.
It’s all good news for a region that is quickly adopting new mindsets in the pursuit of economic vitality.
“It’s a fundamental component of evolution: the ones that are most nimble, quickest and most adaptable to change are the ones that are going to thrive,” says Bryant. “We have that in our market, and what’s very cool is we have some extraordinary, innovative stuff in advanced manufacturing that goes all around the world.”