Putting Rockford First Is Next

December 13, 2002
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(First story in a 2-part series)
ROCKFORD — The results are in and the survey showed that nearly 40 percent of Rockford residents shop local merchants for their goods and services. But that number would double if certain stores lined the city’s scenic downtown; then, eight of 10 said they would do business with Rockford merchants.

Those findings are just two of a slew from a comprehensive survey of the shopping habits of consumers living in Rockford. The purpose of the study was to determine which commercial services should be added to increase consumer traffic downtown.

Called Rockford First, the survey asked residents where they shopped; what commercial services they used locally; how loyal they were to local businesses; and, most importantly, which types of goods and services they want added.

Topping their retail list of “wanna-haves” were restaurants, clothing stores, bookstores and a hotel. They also wanted a mass retailer, like a Meijer or Target, but are unlikely to get one in the city they described as having a quaint shopping district.

As for professional services, most respondents felt none were needed, but some thought that the city could use a health clinic and a few doctor’s offices.

“I’m very happy with the results of the survey. Overall, what I think we will see is a huge untapped market in an immediate 10- to 15-minute drive from the city of Rockford that, for a number of reasons, are not utilizing the businesses that we have,” said Michael Young Rockford city manager.

The why is always the key and now Young feels that Rockford has that insight, as the survey showed why those that shop there do so. They like the rustic charm of downtown and all the activities that go on there along the banks of the Rogue River. Respondents also said the business district was pedestrian-friendly and that they could find parking.

“They like the atmosphere that we have. There is no doubt that we have the atmosphere and environment that can’t be duplicated in a mall or in a big-box store,” said Young. “So that is the strength that we will play on and use as we promote our community.”

But the survey also revealed that not everyone knew exactly what downtown has to offer.

So one step the city will take is to let residents know what is available there, something many long-timers may not know. Rockford’s population grew by nearly 25 percent over the past decade and, at the same time, its number of businesses and merchants increased.

In fact, tax revenue from the city’s industrial and commercial sectors now account for more than half of its total revenue. Ten years ago, when the city was seen as a bedroom community, close to three-quarters of its tax revenue came from residents and homeowners.

That makes Young feel that some longtime city dwellers may not be keenly aware of the changes that have happened in the business district over the last 10 years.

“The other aspect is to attract those businesses and services that people want in the community that we may not have. We needed to know what those were before we could go out and attract them,” he said.

The survey evaluated responses from 384 respondents and has a 95-percent confidence level. Davison, Dietsch and McCarthy conducted it through Wondergem Consulting. The study, which got started in September, cost $25,000 and was paid for by the city and local businesses.

“I’m very pleased that we took this route and collected the data first. A number of people thought that we should have taken that money and just started marketing our community,” said Young.

“But we took a step back and said we need to know what our people are truly thinking about our shopping environment and our commercial districts because if we would have just gone out and started marketing, we may have sent out the wrong message.”           

Tomorrow: What the message is and who will be involved in sending it.

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