Chuck Sweeney: Freeport, Stephenson consider combining development, tourism groups

Could an ‘all on the same page’ strategy boost Freeport, Stephenson County as a ‘destination’ location?

Small- and medium-sized cities that once thrived because of robust “old technology” industries are having to rethink their reasons for continuing to exist.

Factories that employed thousands of people in one location have gone away and won’t be back. Automation played a part, as did outsourcing and Illinois’ anti-business political leadership.

The cities and regions that prosper in the future will be those that work creatively and cooperatively to redevelop and repurpose themselves to meet the needs and wants of young people. 

The young adults known as the Millennial Generation don’t just move to take a job, they look at a community’s total lifestyle, says Lowell Crow, Freeport’s city manager. “When millennials look at a town, they’re looking at the type of downtown it has, what activities and attractions the municipality can provide to people,” Crow said when we talked Friday.

They’re also evaluating education, housing prices, public safety and the arts.

It’s the same way with businesses. No longer are they just looking for sufficient water, electricity and labor. They are looking for locations that will attract young and talented employees who have the skills to meet the challenges of a fast changing economy.

In Rockford, for example, community leaders began a number of initiatives to bring people from out of town to the city all year long, including the relatively new Stroll on State, which brought thousands of people to downtown Rockford in chilly November for Christmas-themed activities.

What about Stephenson County? Would people spend a Saturday or a weekend perusing the shops and restaurants of Freeport, riding bikes on the local trails, relaxing in Krape Park and stopping for a hot fudge sundae at Union Dairy?

Would they go to a special event that takes place in several villages in the county as well as in Freeport?

Would a more interesting variety of businesses, tourist activities, fine arts venues, shops and restaurants convince business to grow and new business to locate in Freeport and the surrounding area?

Crow says business expansions are already happening.

“Modern Plating is doubling its size, Tri Star Metals is going to increase their size, and so are Berner Foods and Snak King,” Crow said. “MetLife is expanding employment.

“We’re turning around downtown, we want to grow our community, and repurpose the old buildings,” Crow said. “The perfect example is the old Rawleigh building, being remade into machine shops, an entertainment hall, and for other uses.”

Freeport is looking at Dubuque, Iowa, South Bend, Indiana and Kalamazoo, Michigan as models for what a small city can do to reverse sinking fortunes. In the 1980s Dubuque had high unemployment and its downtown was dying and dreary. Now Dubuque has a revitalized downtown and an exciting riverfront. Kalamazoo has bounced back nicely from the dark days when the Upjohn Company was bought by Merck and closed up shop in K’zoo.

“Kalamazoo has become the Austin (Texas) of the North,” Crow said, with entertainment venues, microbreweries, restaurants and arts venues.

What Freeport area leaders are discussing now is the possibility of combining several organizations to pack more punch in developing the city and county in a way that  encourages business retention and lures new businesses to the area.

Organizations that could be consolidated include the Freeport Area Chamber of Commerce, Northwest Illinois Development Alliance (NIDA), Stephenson County Convention and Visitors Bureau and Collaborate Freeport.

“It takes the best of all organizations to try to take us to the next level,” Crow said, “so we have a consistent message driving toward the same goals.”

Of course, whenever great changes are proposed, there is consternation and concern in some quarters, and that’s also happening, Crow conceded.

Thinking positive again, he added, “We have great parks, bike trails, microbreweries, an outstanding library, Little Cubs Field, Union Dairy.”

What’s not to like?

Chuck Sweeny: 815-987-1366; csweeny@rrstar.com; @chucksweeny