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Rockford is making a comeback — and so is the city’s pride

Originally published by Kate Silver in the Chicago Tribune

Long known for manufacturing, Rockford is in the midst of a reboot. A once sleepy downtown has come alive, and the pride among residents is palpable.

If you haven’t been to Rockford in a few years, it might be time to plan a visit. While you were sleeping, the area’s downtown started waking up. And now, work is underway to transform an old, dilapidated factory called the Amerock Building into a 160-room Hilton Embassy Suites Hotel and Rockford Conference Center that’s steps from the action.

Wandering around the urban core of the city, about 90 miles northwest of Chicago, there are bustling spots that feel a bit like Milwaukee or Indianapolis or other river-lined cities in the Midwest. Rockford has many of those elements that city dwellers have come to expect from energized urban areas: craft breweries (Prairie Street Brewing Co. and Carlyle Brewing Co.), a bustling restaurant scene (with locally sourced offerings at places like Social Urban Bar & Restaurant and Octane InterLounge), a coffee roaster (Rockford Roasting Co.), swanky lofts, yoga studios and more.

Cultural institutions are another downtown draw, including an ornately restored theater (Coronado Performing Arts Center) and a museum campus with the Discovery Center MuseumBurpee Museum of Natural History, the Rockford Dance Company and the Rockford Art Museum. On the sporty side of things, the Rockford IceHogs — the Blackhawks’ minor-league team — are at BMO Harris Bank Center, and the new, river-hugging UW Health Sports Factory brings in amateur tournaments in basketball, volleyball, pickleball and more throughout the year. The backdrop to it all: story-filled, old brick buildings, many of which are skeletons from Rockford’s factory-filled past.

When the hotel opens in spring 2020, city officials are banking on it drawing more visitors to the area. It’s not just any hotel and conference center, after all. The 13-story concrete building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is in a prime location, overlooking a large park and the Rock River. And the developer is Gorman & Co., a Wisconsin-based outfit known for its revitalization projects.

“I see this changing downtown Rockford. I really do,” says Gary Gorman, chairman of Gorman & Co. “I think we’re going to be able to attract events to Rockford that wouldn’t come here otherwise. And I think we’re going to change the image of Rockford.”

Hotel

When it opens in 2020, the Hilton Embassy Suites Hotel, shown here in an artist rendering, will offer visitors a place to stay in the center of downtown. (Gorman & Co.)

Connecting past to present

Gorman & Co. has deep experience in the historic rehabilitation arena, having worked on more than 30 projects fitting that description since 1985. One that’s especially notable is the radical transformation of a former Pabst Brewery into the beloved Brewhouse Inn & Suites in Milwaukee. Gorman’s company has also turned the former Garton Toy Factory — which made sleds, tricycles, wagons and other wheeled toys — into apartments in Sheboygan, Wis., and converted a wagon factory and auto plant into the Mitchell Wagon Lofts in Racine. The real estate development company is headquartered in a former high school built in 1922 in Oregon, Wis.

Gorman says that with the current hotel project, he wants to meld the history of the Amerock Building and modern-day Rockford.

“People like to see indications of what the building was previously used for,” he says.

It’s still early on in the construction process, though, and Gorman says he’s not yet sure what, exactly, those historical touches might look like.

Construction on the $87.5 million project, which is using a mix of public and private funds, began in late 2017. As construction crews remove lead paint and tear out old wood from the floors, they’re finding and saving treasures from the building’s history, like old lockers, a newspaper dating to 1923, antiquated meters and elevator tags that could be put to use in the new design. When it’s complete, the hotel will have a two-level spa, a first-floor restaurant, a 12th-floor outdoor cocktail lounge and 40,000 square feet of conference space with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the Rock River.

“It’s going to be a spectacular setting that doesn’t exist in Rockford right now,” says Gorman.

But the project isn’t just about a hotel. It’s really a symbol of the evolution of Rockford, long a manufacturing hub with the nickname Screw City. In the early 20th century, the concrete building was Rockford’s first skyscraper and home to a number of businesses related to the knitting industry. It was originally named for William Ziock Sr., a leading figure in the knitting and textile arena. Its name changed to the Amerock Building when, for decades, it housed the manufacturing company Amerock (a portmanteau for America and Rockford), a cabinet- and hardware-maker. More recently, it’s been a symbol of blight, referred to as an “eyesore” by local newscasters and residents, and there have been a number of efforts to redevelop the building.

Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara says the hotel further validates the downtown development — and momentum — that’s been going on for the last few years.

“I think any time you can get such a flagship (hotel brand) that we have been fortunate enough to get, it just speaks volumes about what is going on,” says McNamara.

Continue reading at the Chicago Tribune