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Rockford targets high-tech jobs

Jerry Hampton (left) grabs a wrench from Brian Ward while doing maintenance Oct. 21 on the engine of a plane brought in from Columbia at Emery Air Inc. in Rockford. Emery is one of the almost 100 aerospace and aviation companies in Rockford.
Jerry Hampton (left) grabs a wrench from Brian Ward while doing maintenance Oct. 21 on the engine of a plane brought in from Columbia at Emery Air Inc. in Rockford. Emery is one of the almost 100 aerospace and aviation companies in Rockford.

As the city of Rockford attempted to rebuild its long-struggling economy a few years ago, officials found promise in a humming aerospace sector that sprung up where other manufacturing faltered.

In a city known for high unemployment and Rust Belt decay, almost 100 companies were quietly designing and building parts for components such as jet engines and repairing the planes that use them. The extent of the work being done impressed even people who knew some of the companies were there.

“The more that we began to research, the more that we began to go, ‘Holy smokes’ – the concentration here was amazing,” said Eric Voyles, vice president of national business development at the Rockford Area Economic Development Council.

Late last year, state and local economic officials used those assets to make a serious – albeit ultimately unsuccessful – bid for a new commercial airliner being built by The Boeing Company.

State and local officials say Boeing told them the bid was strong enough to put Rockford among the final handful of locations the company looked at before settling on a site in familiar Washington state. Boeing declined comment on any of the 50-plus locations that bid to build the new 777x.

Although it’s not clear if Boeing ever seriously considered moving, the company used the other bids to pressure union workers in Washington state, industry experts said. Rockford’s challenge is turning that feel-good moment into something more.

“I think there’s so much value in what everybody discovered here, from the governor’s office on down to the Rockford [officials]” said David Roeder, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

The effort already has begun. State and local officials plan to return this year to a major air show in Europe to tout the advantages of moving businesses to Rockford.

The lesson for other smaller cities and towns is to pay attention to what you have, because economic trends change, Voyles said.

Tuscola in eastern Illinois was a finalist for the FutureGen clean-coal project a few years ago. It has used that close call – and its proximity to a major natural gas line, railroads and an interstate highway – to compete for a large fertilizer plant.

“We found out 5 or 6 years ago that we were a good spot for industrial development,” said Brian Moody, executive director of Tuscola Economic Development Inc.

But he warned the process can be slow. Tuscola bid for FutureGen in 2006 and is still working for its big payoff.

Winnebago County, where Rockford is located, has one of the highest unemployment rates in a high-unemployment state, 11.5 percent in December. The area, which has long struggled with Rust Belt post-industrial decline, is a place where economic growth doesn’t come easy.

For decades, the town thrived on manufacturing – tools, auto parts, farm implements, toys and more. Then, factories across the Midwest started closing in the 1980s, the jobs either being moved to places where the wages were lower or lost to modernization.

The search that led to the town’s Boeing bid started with a footnote in a consultant’s study.

“You might want to explore aerospace parts manufacturing,” Voyles recalled.

Over the past 20 to 30 years, some of Rockford’s manufacturers started putting their precision to work for the aerospace business, using their expertise in a business that demands it, Voyles said.

Other companies from outside had set up shop, too. In all, about 4,000 people work in aerospace production in the Rockford metro area, according to the Rockford Area Economic Development Council. More work in the aviation end of the business, though Voyles said the council doesn’t have solid numbers.

There is also Chicago Rockford International Airport. It struggles as a passenger airport, but it has specialized in aviation maintenance. And, its 10,000-foot runway allows the airport to serve as one of United Parcel Service’s busiest cargo hubs, employing more than 1,000 people.

That runway, one of the state’s longest, was a key piece of Rockford’s Boeing bid, state and local officials say, confounding industry experts who said Illinois wasn’t capable of making a serious offer for such a big aerospace project.

Armed with what they’d learned about their aerospace cluster, state and local economic developers started going a few years ago to big-league air shows to mingle with companies in the industry, particularly the annual European shows that alternate between Paris and Farnborough in the United Kingdom .

Air-show trips are important, said Scott Hamilton, an aerospace industry analyst with Leeham Co. in the Seattle area. But trade missions — the kind that include a state’s governor — can make a difference. And Illinois shouldn’t just think about Rockford, he said.

“The (state has) that white elephant of Mid America,” Hamilton said, referring to the struggling MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah. “Why not build on that and try to build an aerospace cluster down there?”

Also important, those involved in the pitch to Boeing say, is what they learned from listening during meetings.

“The first thing Boeing wanted to know was, did we have the human capital, the talent pool to do the job,” said Dan Seals, assistant director of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity who was part of the team that met with Boeing.

Voyles said he gets the impression that Boeing doubted the city, home to around 150,000 people, was big enough to provide a workforce that could reach 8,000. In the future, he said he planned to highlight the metro area’s population is more than twice as large.

But Voyles says the town’s Boeing moment has already created a new opportunity. The company is meeting this month with local companies about what it takes to supply parts to the company.


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