Five counties, two states, one identity - 11/20/2003

Special Report: Thinking Regional

Five counties, two states, one identity

By Chuck Sweeny
Rock River Valley Project

In ways both subtle and bold, four counties in northern Illinois and one in southern Wisconsin are banding together to prosper in the 21st century.

No, they're not seceding from Wisconsin and Illinois to form a new state. In fact, they aren't even forming anything as mundane as a regional planning council _ yet.

But increasingly, leaders and residents of Boone, Stephenson, Winnebago, Ogle counties in Illinois and Rock County in Wisconsin are realizing that they live, work and play in a region loosely known as the Rock River Valley.

To explore ways of building a better economy, organized as Rock River Valley Partners, representatives from a group of chambers of commerce, economic development and related organizations from the five counties will hold the region's first economic summit April 11 at Cliffbreakers Hotel & Conference Center in Rockford.

The Rock River Valley Economic Summit is the outcome of one of 14 regional economic initiatives recommended last summer by a five-county task force known as the Regional Vision for Community Excellence Steering Committee.

Regional similarities

The five counties form a definable region with similar economic interests and challenges, said Bob Levin, director of the Rockford Area Council of 100, an economic development group.

What happens in one county often affects the others.

``Highway construction on the Wisconsin side of the border may directly impact development on the Illinois side,'' Levin said. The opposite is also true. The logical end of the controversial Perryville Road extension in Winnebago County is at the state line, where plans would carry the road _ known at the north end as the Willowbrook extension _ through to Beloit's I-90 Industrial park and past the entrance to the proposed tribal casino.

People interviewed from all five counties said they like living in the Rock River Valley, even if they hardly ever think of it by that name.

``We live where we live because we choose to live there,'' said Bill Tyler, a Town of Rock resident in Wisconsin.

``In addition to jobs and factories, the quality of life here is big,'' said Belvidere Mayor Fred Brereton, a fan of regional problem-solving.

``I sense we're all thinking regionally,'' he said.

Not everyone. A lot of parochialism still prevails in the area. Not all neighboring city and county leaders meet regularly, and communities still raid each other to snatch businesses. Cross-state competition for industries has been keen, as governments in Wisconsin and Illinois enticed companies with grab bags full of incentives.

Such competition, said one man interviewed for this project, is a zero sum game.

``We have to get away from the idea that this city is my city. We have to spread out,'' said Elias Soria of Rockford.

The reason is obvious, said Soria, who works in the Rockford Housing Authority's family self-sufficiency program.

``The more people you have, the more power you have.''

Confronting challenges

The cities and villages of the Rock River Valley are at a crossroads. The region became rich from the toil and sweat of legions of factory workers. The verdant countryside prospered under the plows of the world's most efficient farmers.

Now, multiple challenges face the valley and its 600,000 residents. Farm prices are depressed. Factories have closed. Thousands have been thrown out of work. The unchecked growth of Chicagoland's sprawl looms large on the eastern horizon, and as it oozes westward, it threatens the region's distinctive urban and rural identity.

Stephenson County provides an illustration of the need to jointly develop economic and transportation resources. Its population in 2000, 48,979, is the same as in 1970. Leaders say the county's isolation from the interstate highway network has made it less and less attractive to business.

``Freeport is on the wrong end of a one-way street,'' said Nickee Bender, a 20-year city alderman. One result: the city has lost the corporate headquarters of Newell-Rubbermaid, which is moving to Atlanta.

Competing with the world

To remain competitive with the world, the Rock River Valley must check the job losses, build a new economy for the 21st century and forge a common identity everybody understands.

``Regionalism has got to come. We're a mobile society,'' says Chuck Newburg, a Rockford resident.

But regionalism _ five counties sharing common development goals and pursuing a common strategy to achieve them _ is practiced more in theory than in fact, said a prominent Ogle County public sector developer.

``We should work together, there's no question. The problem is, we sit around and talk but we don't do anything,'' said Ken Wise, director of the Greater Rochelle Economic Development Commission.

Others are more optimistic. Rockford Mayor Doug Scott says area-wide cooperation is on the upswing. He ticks off group after group of mayors, legislators, chambers of commerce, transportation planners and economic development leaders who meet regularly to discuss common problems and solutions.

``There's a lot more cooperation now than there ever has been, and there are a number of ways we do that,'' Scott said, citing the example of a recent trip to Springfield where he, Mayor Jim Gitz of Freeport and other leaders along U.S. 20 lobbied legislative leaders for a freeway from Freeport to Galena, a $600 million project.

Speaking with the united voice of 400,000 constituents carries more clout than 40,000, Gitz said. Freeport's mayor views cooperation as a you-scratch-my-back, I'll-scratch-yours proposition.

``We can help Rockford (lobby for its airport) because we have a horse in that race. In fact we have a horse and a pony,'' Gitz said. He means that if Greater Rockford Airport lands passenger service, it helps Freeport just as much as it does Rockford. That, Gitz hopes, will lead to jobs.

And if big freight and passenger airlines ever crowd general and corporate planes out of Rockford, Freeport's Albertus Airport and Rock County Airport in Wisconsin can capture them.

Some cooperative efforts come out of the shared recognition that something must be done to replace the old industrial economy with something new and highly technical. The region must sell the benefits of its highly motivated work force to the world, leaders said.

Tom Hawes, Roscoe Township supervisor, said the Rock River Valley needs to fortify its industrial centers.

``We need to identify what our base is and work to attract and retain it,'' Hawes said.

Everyday regionalism

While officials ponder the valley's future, residents go about their lives in ways that illustrate the very regionalism that sometimes seems difficult for leaders to grasp.

For instance, people who used to shop in their neighborhood markets now think nothing of traveling 20, 30 miles or more to snap up bargains.

``When we were young, we didn't travel far to shop but now we do,'' said Carol Archer, Rockford home organizer and mother of four.

People also think nothing of living in one city while working an hour away in another one.

Michelle Tyler lives in the Town of Rock in Wisconsin, but works in Rockford as a REACT helicopter crew member at Rockford Health System.

``It took me about a year to get used to the drive,'' Tyler said of the 35 minute commute.

``Now I don't think twice about it. I actually enjoy the drive.''

While Tyler is headed south in the morning, Bruce Reagan is motoring north. The Davis, Ill., resident is administrator of Rock County Christian School in Beloit and Janesville.

``It's a beautiful drive, not like Chicago-style traffic, so I don't mind the drive. My kids attend the school I work at so they make the 30-minute trek with me. I use it as my bonding time with them.''

Tyler is one of 4,871 Rock County residents who travel daily to Winnebago County to work. Meanwhile, Winnebago is sending Reagan and 3,157 other residents north to Rock County.

While 4,300 workers from Winnebago County go to Boone County for work, 841 also work in Stephenson County.

Just as jobs in Rock County attract workers from Belvidere or Freeport, factory closings in one city also have a ripple effect down the road in the next town or two.

Gary Carlson, 48, of Janesville, worked for years in South Beloit at a Beloit Corp. foundry. It closed in 2001. Carlson is now learning all about robotics at the Blackhawk Technical College between Beloit and Janesville, which, like Rockford's Rock Valley College, has a dislocated workers program.

Bill Whalen, 50, of Rockford, is waiting to take advantage of a new RVC program to train workers in integrated systems technology.

Whalen was a machinist at Sun-Tec, formerly Sundstrand Hydraulic, for 24 years before the company moved production out of Rockford in 2001.

``Everything at this program is new, as close to the state of the art as you can get,'' said Whalen, who hopes to learn a variety of skills needed to work in 21st century factories.

But where will Whalen and Carlson work when they're retrained? And where will their children work? There are several regional efforts underway to make the region more attractive to companies that create jobs.

  • In Boone County, U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Egan, has just garnered $500,000 from Uncle Sam for Belvidere and Boone leaders to begin a technology park to find new uses for the crops farmers grow.

    ``The magnitude of the ag tech story is huge. We're going to preserve open space and farms, giving added value to the agriculture'' and developing new jobs that will benefit the entire Rock River Valley, said Belvidere's Brereton.

  • In Winnebago County, Rockford leaders are working with universities, the Pentagon and business leaders to create a manufacturing technology research and development laboratory that would leapfrog Rockford into the future of high tech manufacturing.

  • The Greater Rockford Airport is gaining ground as a busy freight center. It's the 23rd busiest freight hub, offering next day delivery to the nation. While the airport lost air passenger service two years ago, director Bob O&#039Brien is aggressively pursuing airlines.

  • In Ogle County, Union Pacific is building a $180 million truck-to-train cargo hub that will change the face of the ground freight business in Chicagoland. Already, companies that depend on swift movement of products are relocating to the five-county region.

    ``There will be companies coming to the area stretching from north of Rockford down to Dixon and east to Mendota,'' said Union Pacific consultant Neil Palmer.

    The area between Rockford and Rochelle is ripe to court companies that receive materials on trucks and trains from the UP hub, add value here, then ship out the finished product via UPS at the Rockford airport, Palmer said.

    ``Those are the kinds of businesses the region ought to be trying to attract,'' Palmer said.

    Palmer noted that the Janesville Gazette recently did a two-page spread on Rochelle's hub, indicating its importance to businesses 60 miles away.

  • Mayors from Rockford, Belvidere and into McHenry County are working to bring Metra commuter trains to the valley. They believe that connecting the area to the nation's most respected commuter railroad will boost the region's quality of life and make travel to and from Chicago both quicker and more relaxing.

    Their lobbying, and the support of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, has convinced Metra to extend a track readiness study from Huntley to the Boone County line. Manzullo is securing federal funds to study tracks in Boone and Winnebago County in the run up to commuter service.

    Meanwhile, a similar effort is underway on the Wisconsin side of the state line. Metra rail service through Sharon and Clinton to Rock County has received broad support from municipal, county and state leaders, particularly State Sen. Judy Robson, D-Beloit.

  • Mayors, business leaders and county officials from Rockford to Freeport and west as far as Dubuque, Iowa, are working to convince the state of Illinois to make U.S. 20 a four-lane expressway from Freeport to Galena. The effort received a substantial boost last week through key federal support.

    These are ad-hoc efforts, however. When the topic turns to a formal structure for regional cooperation, leaders aren't of one mind.

    ``I don't have time to go to any more meetings,'' said Rochelle's Ken Wise, who would rather work on developing projects that provide jobs and business opportunities for the Rock River Valley.

    ``I don't think you need one over-arching thing'' said Rockford's Mayor Scott. ``I think our efforts at regional cooperation are working very well.''

    Beloit City Manager Jane Wood took a larger world view. Wood suggested communities up and down the Rock River Valley form a bi-state economic development consortium to help coordinate issues like land use and infrastructure requirements.

    ``Whether there is collaboration between communities in the Rock River Valley or not, there should be a recognition that we are in fact part of a regional economy that crosses state lines,'' said Richard H. Gruber, vice president of Mercy Health System in Janesville.

    ``What would happen if we looked at our assets as a region and let the broader world know about them?'' said Laura Mosena, director of economic development at Blackhawk Technical College.

    ``What would happen if we pooled our marketing dollars to draw outside attention to our region?''

    Great things, perhaps.

    (Chuck Sweeny of the Rockford Register Star wrote this article with information provided by reporters for the Beloit Daily News, Janesville Gazette and Freeport Journal-Standard.

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