Leaders from across our region are positioning for a fast and more full recovery, and they’re beginning with a look back as they set their sights on a prosperous future.
Every corner of the Rockford area’s economy has felt the impact of COVID-19, but how badly it’s stung depends on where you are.
While fields like information, finance and transportation have remained stable, businesses in the leisure and hospitality sector shed nearly half their jobs in April – a total of nearly 6,000, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Professional and business services shed nearly one-fifth of their jobs, about 1,500. Even manufacturing, which in some cases avoided shutdowns this spring, is off about 3,000 jobs.
Mindful that economic recovery is a top priority for area leaders, Transform Rockford is doing what it does best: leading the conversation on a strategic renewal of our region. This nonprofit’s latest initiative involves a unique consortium of more than 40 organizations from private, public and nonprofit sectors across Winnebago, Boone and Stephenson counties. Their goal: chart a course for the region’s economic recovery.
“Because we’re convening so many leaders of these organizations that influence their sectors, it allows us to say, ‘What strategies can we deploy as regional partners to support economic recovery?’” says David Sidney, executive director of Transform Rockford.
Partners include obvious stakeholders like Rockford Area Economic Development Council, Greater Freeport Partnership and Growth Dimensions, but it also includes tangential partners, like Rockford Public Library, NIU EIGERlab, Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Chambers of Commerce in Rockford, Belvidere and Machesney Park/Loves Park.
The new consortium is, in many ways, building on the work Transform Rockford has led over the past seven years.
The new Launch 815 initiative began as a Transform project and is now a live, working resource for entrepreneurs. Launched this spring and hosted online at launch815.com, it provides a roadmap for business growth and gives entrepreneurs more direct connections with business coaches, innovation support and other key stakeholders.
“What we’re seeing from early users is that it’s enabling them to get connected to the Small Business Development Center faster, connect with vital resources better, and if someone is needing more support, we can help get them on that journey quicker,” says Sidney.
Consortium members are bringing their own resources forward with the nascent 815 Open for Business initiative, which is designed to help small businesses adapt to changing retail conditions. The platform, pioneered by the Parks Chamber of Commerce and the Belvidere Chamber of Commerce, provides e-commerce, marketing, digital branding and other tech tools at an affordable price. Visit 815OpenforBusiness.com to learn more.
While these projects are a start, the consortium is also asking the difficult questions about what’s next for the region. Their conversations are guided, in part, by research already underway through Transform’s Economy and Jobs team.
“Prior to COVID, they were already thinking, ‘What does accelerating economic growth in the Rockford region look like?’” says Sidney. From studying Rockford’s own history and the rebounds of similar communities, the team saw a clear pattern.
“We’ve always known that the Rockford region recovers from economic downturns much slower,” adds Sidney. “It follows the same curve as other regions, but we’re generally uneven in terms of industries and various demographic groups that benefit.”
Building on this research, the consortium is considering how their work can help Rockford to recover earlier, more equitably and sustainably in the coming months.
Because we tend to lag other regions, they’re reviewing ways to better position local businesses for growth. Because certain industries and demographic groups will recover faster, they’re reviewing how others might avoid being left behind. And, because economic shocks will recur, they’re considering how our region might become more resilient to future downturns.
“It takes all the resources of everyone to be able to achieve these big goals,” says Sidney. “So, I think the aha moments along the way have been related to what we think is necessary for economic recovery. We’re looking at things that are actually going to help our economy out of this.”
How quickly our region rebounds depends on many factors, not the least of which is related to public health and public policy. But, these early steps provide promise for what’s to come.
“I think the times we’re in have reinforced the need for collaboration, and made it apparent that partnerships are what leads to this future of a Top 25 community,” says Sidney. “I have seen and experienced higher levels of collaboration since the earlier part of this year, and that is the core of who we are as Transform Rockford.”
To learn more, visit TransformRockford.org.