A Transformed Rockford Makes Retiree Dreams

Helen and Ernie Redfern were ahead of the curve when they discovered Rockford had everything they wanted for retirement — unlike the 20 other communities vying for their attention.

Helen & Ernie Redfern chose Rockford as their destination retirement spot because it had so many of the qualities they most desired. (M&M Photography)

Call it an act of fate that brought Helen and Ernie Redfern to Rockford.

Ready to flee Chicago suburbia for a quieter retirement, the couple had a simple set of criteria: a home that was in walking distance of major amenities, had ample health care facilities, had proximity to grandkids, and held many activities when family and friends visited.

The couple’s search led them to communities up and down the Mississippi River, from places like Fort Madison and Keokuk in Iowa, to Quincy and Monmouth in Illinois. No matter where they searched, they just couldn’t find “the one.” Maybe it was the lack of cultural diversity. Maybe it was the dearth of visitor attractions or the long response times when you call 911 – things you think about in retirement. In one case, it was the Realtor saying her ho-hum community was three years away from a turnaround.

“It got to a point where we were lowering our expectations,” says Helen. “We would go back to our spreadsheet and say, ‘This had three going-out-of-business signs, and this one only had two. Maybe we should look there.’”

Helen and Ernie felt defeated as they headed back from visiting their 20th community in the summer of 2018. Traveling the long, empty road home, Helen was scrolling through a real estate app on her phone. The car hit a bump; her finger slipped. Suddenly, the search area expanded.

Rockford? That wasn’t on the radar. But sure, why not? They took a detour, and they never looked back. It’s a story that’s becoming more frequent as Rockford becomes a top community.

“We came down East State Street, and we saw the planters and people walking about,” says Helen. “I was joking that we landed on the set of a Hallmark movie.”

Ernie had never been to Rockford, and after living in Chicago for nearly 35 years, had no real expectation for the city. Right away, he was struck by the activity downtown, the liveliness at the Prairie Street Brewhouse, and the variety of activities in between.

“The thing I liked best was, as we started looking at our criteria, we wanted someplace we could walk fairly safely, we wanted good health care – and, my gosh, Rockford was just unbelievable,” he says.

Helen realized the town looked very different than it did upon her last visit in early 2010. “Something’s happening here,” she kept telling her husband.
“If something had changed this much in a decade, there must be some new life and positivity here,” says Helen.

Driving down a newly paved Spring Creek Road, they noticed a sign posted along the roadside.

“It said this was a project that was doable because of the 1 percent sales tax increase that the population had voted on,” says Ernie. “I looked at that and was amazed they were willing to reinvest in their community, because we had come from places where it may take decades to climb up to where Rockford is.”

Helen admits after that day they pretty much threw out the spreadsheet. They were all in for Rockford. The couple closed on a house in the Churchill’s Grove neighborhood in August 2018, set about renovating it and moved in just in time for Halloween.

The Redferns’ first year as Rockfordians has been a whirlwind of activity, as they’ve taken advantage of the city’s many positive attributes. They joined their neighbors in a landscaping project to revitalize Veterans Memorial Circle, the roundabout at North Main and Auburn streets. At Christmas, their family ran out of time to enjoy everything they wanted to see. For several weeks this summer, they entertained their 7-year-old grandson – who, of course, kept finding new activities. They’ve hosted many friends, too.

“Who would think that people from Scotland would come here to go to their first Japanese garden?” says Ernie. “I always tell Helen, ‘If we can’t find things to do in Rockford, we’re not looking very hard.’”

There’s not much to dislike about their new hometown, says Ernie, but he and Helen are surprised to find how often locals give it a bad rap.

“Helen said it best when she told me, ‘Rockfordians need to let up a lot,’” says Ernie.

He adds: “If you have a negative perception, we would like to change it. Look at all of the good things that are happening here. And if you look at how well-rounded we are – access to medical care, access to decent local restaurants, access to entertainment, access to culture, access to kids’ activities – it’s a pretty special place.”

The Redferns say they admire the strong can-do attitude of their neighbors and the wide accessibility of local officials. They value the region’s strong independent businesses. They love how easy it is to get around, regardless of whether you walk or drive. And they love spending time downtown. It’s been everything they hoped they could find in retirement.

“We were laughing when the [SeniorAdvice.com] story came out about Rockford being a Top 20 place to retire,” says Helen. “I kept saying, ‘Ernie, we’re ahead of the game.’”

For more information on the effort to strategically transform the Rockford region, visit transformrockford.org.