Transform Rockford: Changing the Narrative with 815 Ambassadors

Who’s better equipped to share the good things happening in Rockford than the people who live there? This group of dedicated community evangelists is making sure those outside our region can hear their hometown’s story.

He didn’t grow up in Rockford, so Ron Clewer has always found it a little strange when longtime residents badmouth their hometown.

“The challenges we face as a community are no different from other communities,” says Clewer, a former Wisconsin resident and longtime real estate developer. “Do we have more challenges? Yes, we did. Are we emerging from those? Yes.”

On many levels, Transform Rockford leaders and volunteers like Clewer are seeing positive change around the region, but they know it’s easy to take for granted. And, it’s often difficult to flip the narrative. That’s why, in the effort to strategically transform the Rockford region, there’s a growing attention to the idea of “pride in place” – the idea that people actually like, and enjoy promoting, their hometown.

For a growing number of Rockford residents and expats, it’s as easily said as done. Since last February, more than 350 people have taken an active role as an 815 Ambassador, sharing positive stories about their region with a growing network in their social media feeds.

It works like this: sign up to become an ambassador and you’ll periodically receive notices of good news to share. You post the news to your social media – uploading to multiple sites at once, if you choose – and use a couple of strategic hashtags to build a movement. The more you share, and the more people who sign up, the broader Rockford’s reach extends.

“I’m going to do it anyway,” says Clewer. “It’s just what I believe in, so why wouldn’t I also be an 815 Ambassador, where something I’m going to do anyway has value for our community?”

Clewer finds it’s been easy to promote the region these days, given that he’s Illinois Market President for Gorman & Co., the Madison-area developer behind the new Embassy Suites hotel in downtown Rockford. Preparing for the hotel’s debut, Clewer posted regular teasers of the new attraction.

“I love watching the statistics from LinkedIn, because I can see if I post a short video it’ll maybe get 2,500 people who viewed the video,” says Clewer. “Maybe 700 are from Rockford, and 500 are from Milwaukee, and then 300 are from Washington, D.C., and the rest are from any number of other places.”

Through the efforts of many like-minded individuals, word is getting out about the Rockford region’s successes. Over just the past few years, the region has made rankings for places to retire, downtown revivals and must-see destinations.

Titles including Major League Baseball’s blog, Fast Company magazine, Forbes and Chicago Tribune have reported on everything from Rockford’s plan to end homelessness to NBA star and hometown hero Fred Van Vleet, to rapidly growing cargo shipments at Chicago Rockford International Airport.

In all, the 815 Ambassadors have built a reach of more than 400,000 people while earning nearly 69,000 impressions and about $13,878 in earned media value, according to Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, the backbone organization leading this initiative.

“815 Ambassadors was created to help spread positivity throughout the community,” says Katryna Kirby, founder of Social Kat, an agency specializing in social media management and public relations. “Whenever our city was featured locally or in a national publication, the platform helped us spread the word far and wide. It helps us to change the narrative of our region and helps us see our community with a new set of eyes.”

Clewer believes there’s ample opportunity for 815 Ambassadors to broaden the local network. The former CEO of the Rockford Housing Authority, Clewer is still connected with many public housing residents on Facebook – and it’s often their chief form of communication.

As he sees it, 815 Ambassadors is all-inclusive, and the greater diversity of people who partake in the conversation, the more they’ll leverage their relationships to help spread positive news and the transformational mindset.

“I would love to see this platform scale,” says Gabrielle Torina, engagement and communications manager for Transform Rockford. “I know there are way more than 350 people who love Rockford and want to see it prosper. Being an Ambassador doesn’t cost you a thing, and you can contribute to regional transformation right from your phone.”

Still, change doesn’t happen overnight. This past fall, as Gorman & Co. pitched its concept for a downtown casino, Clewer was surprised to hear how many people still hold a negative opinion of downtown, completely unaware of the neighborhood’s rapid comeback over the past decade.

“You may have experienced downtown or the city of Rockford in a certain way, and that’s what you’re holding onto – until you learn to see it differently,” says Clewer. “That, in a nutshell, is what the Ambassador program tries to help spread, is the idea that we can see things differently.”

Adds Torina: “Not everyone has the capacity to volunteer, however, this program offers an opportunity to create a fresh history for our city.”

To become an 815 Ambassador, visit