There’s no slowing down the revitalization of Rockford, Illinois. A vibrant, low-cost-of-living city with over 20,000 acres of public green space, all within a stone’s throw of Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee, Rockford is a diverse community that is capitalizing on its many assets. The city is undergoing a major reinvention along its downtown riverfront, and public investments within the city center have reached over $442 million in recent years while private now exceed $350 million.
“Rockford is changing and we’re proud to see the growth and revitalization that is taking place in our downtown core,” says John Groh, President/CEO of GoRockford. “Many of our storied and historic buildings have been given a new life which is bringing an energy to the city that we haven’t seen before. The local shops, art, entertainment and diverse food scene give people a reason to stay and explore downtown. I’m always excited to see the look on people’s faces when they see how much has changed. It lets me know we’re headed in the right direction, that we now have the lifestyle amenities that urban dwellers seek with the relaxing backdrop of being the Forest City.”
Rockford is home to the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County which encompasses 44 individual forest preserves for the purpose of protecting the natural beauty of the county, as well as for education and recreation. The forest preserves provide over 10,000 acres of protected land for the use and enjoyment of the general public. Lush woods, picturesque streams, dramatic cliffs and dells, unspoiled prairies and native wildlife are treasures to be by residents along with visitors of all ages.
The backdrop to Rockford’s downtown and a staple for activities across the entire county, the beautiful Rock River and adjacent redevelopment is a vital component to the city’s growing success, attracting new residents and visitors from around the country. Flaunting a cost of living 24% lower than the national average, and with 25% of the US population located within a 500-mile radius from the city, talent and visitors are taking notice thanks to a revitalized downtown, an emerging foodie scene, new cultural attractions and tranquil public gardens.
Reinvention efforts are visible throughout the downtown center which houses a six-story mixed-use building featuring 85 new apartments and will be downtown’s first new residential building since 1975. Leaders are intentional in their revitalization efforts on the riverbanks, prioritizing the remembrance of Rockford’s rich history in industrial manufacturing by repurposing historical factories along the Rock River.
Four transformative redevelopment projects shaping the city include:
Reinvented theater and arts space: In 1927 the atmospheric style theater and movie palace opened complete with Spanish castles, Italian villas, oriental dragons, starlit skies and a Grande Barton Pipe Organ. After decades of use, the theater was reborn in its original grand style as a state-of-the-art performance and entertainment facility thanks to an $18.5 million restoration effort, now known as Coronado Performing Arts Center.
Cabinet-Hardware Factory to Hotel & Convention Center: As a tipping point for downtown revitalization, the former Amerock manufacturing building along the river once served as the headquarters of a worldwide cabinet hardware company. After a redevelopment overhaul, the space transformed into Embassy Suites by Hilton & Rockford Conference Center, opened in 2020.
Industrial Factory to Sports Facility: Part of Rockford’s growth as an amateur sports tourism destination is the completion of The UW Health Sports Factory, one of the largest sports facilities in the Midwest, which was once the former Ingersoll factory when Rockford was a major industrial city. The shell of the former factory remains in place today.
Old Brewhouse to Vibrant Brewery: Surviving the decades of late-night shenanigans and prohibition itself, this red brick building nestled on the riverfront was originally constructed as a brewhouse back in 1871. Fast forward to the present day and the space is now a National Historic Landmark and coined The Oldest Brewery in Illinois. To continue the legacy and build on city-wide riverfront revitalization efforts, two lifelong friends transformed the space into what is now Prairie Street Brewing Co, which uniquely features a gorgeous patio near the river marina.
Jojo Genden, owner of Crust and Crumbles, says, “We continue to see more momentum downtown and foot traffic continues to pick up. It’s an exciting place to do business and to see the growth over the last several years.”