In May, I traveled up to Rockford, Illinois to visit family. While I was there I was invited by past clients and students from my Creating the Creative Business class to stop downtown and check out some of their new and/or expanding creative businesses. I honestly was not prepared for the amazing transformation. Back in 2010, when unemployment reached 21% in Rockford, I and a few others with like-minds believed that Rockford needed to find a way to tap into the creative talent of its own citizens rather than focusing solely on attracting businesses from outside the region.
The "tapping your own creative talent" philosophy appears to have worked. Downtown businesses have continued to open or expand over the last couple of years since I left. Although I will give some mention to them in a minute I first want to talk about the "sign" that made me realize how the efforts of a small group of people, that I am pleased to say I was a part, could change an entire downtown. One of the most striking of all these changes was a building recently renovated by Urban Equity Properties in the 300 block of East State St. The building renovated in about a year and finished in January 2015 into upscale apartments on the top two floors and three storefronts on the first had a bold "no vacancy" sign on its side. Wow!
According to a couple of my friends the building was leased out within just a couple of months. I fact checked this with Urban Equity Properties and they indicated the building was completed in Jan 2015 and fully leased by July 2015. Trust me when I say that in 2010, when I started teaching my creative business class to the creatives looking to start up in the new city market, you would find seven empty buildings downtown for every one that had something in it. And that something might be pretty questionable. Like the "go-go" bar turned biker bar that had been occupying the first floor of the now Urban Equity's building since the 70's. The 2nd and 3rd floors were primarily a place where transients lived and later pigeons went to die. This is not an exaggeration.
Now the first floor of the building is occupied by three very creative and "locally grown" enterprises: Bath & Body Fusion and Salvaged by Sonia as well as a third storefront that sells Oils & Spices. Cross the street and you will find that Karen Elyea has opened Minglewood in a new location. She was in a co-biz (two businesses sharing the same location) until about a year ago. In 2010, as much as people would have liked to see upscale women's fashion back in downtown Rockford no one ever thought it was possible. Now there are two shops within two blocks of each other on East State.
Once I was done shopping, I slipped across the river to Stewarts Square and visited Bella Luna Bakery and picked up my favorite biscotti. Had it not been for Lorie and Polly a.k.a. the Bella ladies' delicious baking and ingenious marketing ideas I'm not sure that the Rockford City Market would have gotten off the ground. Now most people in Rockford today would find this statement baffling since the market hosts almost 6,000 people every Friday afternoon and the City has actually built a beautiful new pavilion specifically for the market near Water & State Street.
Later that evening, I popped in to see Joe D'Astice at Woodfire Pizza. Joe was an original vendor at the Rockford City Market and was also a student of mine. Joe will tell you "that all he was looking for was a job". Well he has accomplished that and more. Since 2010, he has taken his woodfire pizza oven from market to market until about a year ago when he opened his own restaurant, with his wife Anne, in the 400 block of East State St. My luck was holding...Joe just introduced his freshly made pasta (i.e. made by Joe on site) that evening and with a great glass of wine it made for an enchanting eating experience.
The way Rockford was able to transform its downtown was by finally realizing that businesses are not going to just move into town and save you. Instead a few people took the time to assist and support the creative entrepreneurs that already existed and this ultimately led to creating a unique experience that is Rockford's very own. In the end, it was the creative talents of the people already living in Rockford willing to invest their talent, time, energy and what little money they had to create businesses that have attracted thousands of visitors to the downtown. Rockford's transformation is definitely worth seeing. Make sure you stop by when you are in the area and tell them I sent you!The author has presented Developing the Creative Economy since 2015 where she discusses in detail her research on the impact of creatives on both community & economic development. If you are interested in her presenting at your event please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org