Lately, long-term planning seems to have taken a back seat to short-term initiatives that feel more manageable in our sometimes chaotic, ever-changing environment. However, capital-intensive ideas require a lengthier viewpoint and fresh eyes to imagine a future scape that builds on strengths and augments weaknesses.
That is the essence of strategic planning and RACVB is about to bring tourism long-range, strategic planning back to the forefront. I am pleased to announce that we are set to engage in a 12-to-18-month process that will result in the development of a Destination Master Plan – a plan that will revitalize our regional tourism economy and an ensure its resiliency in the future.
Our collaborative planning will build on the RACVB’s last round of comprehensive Tourism Development Planning, as well as Region 1 Planning Council’s revised Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for Northern Illinois from November 2020, which specifically identified Tourism as one of six key goals to accomplish the overall RPC Vision. This new planning effort will focus on the tourism economy within Rockford and surrounding Winnebago and Boone Counties and will engage stakeholders and community members in the process.
We’ll bring together various research and data insights into a comprehensive overview of the tourism opportunities today and into the future. By beginning with research and data collection we can share our findings to inform the community and engage stakeholders in plan prioritization. We’ll also look toward what is needed for the future and identify gaps we can fill to create an equitable and accessible tourism ecosystem that will grow a resilient visitor economy while also making our area an attractive place to live and work.
As we dive into this work, we will strive to balance the focus of our most recent plan which identified sports marketing as our greatest tourism opportunity and supported the investment in our sports infrastructure, with projects such as Mercyhealth Sportscore Two and UW Health Sports Factory. While maintaining sports tourism as a key driver of our market, we’ll balance that by gaining a deeper understanding and discovery of the opportunities to leverage our outdoor recreation assets.
The region has a wealth of parks, forest preserves and green spaces. Our two counties possess more than 30,000 acres of protected green and natural space and are home to four rivers (Rock, Sugar, Kishwaukee, Pecatonica) that contribute to outdoor recreation opportunities. These assets are not well enough known outside the region, and not always well connected to each other, yet they present a potential for growing the reputation of the region as an outdoor recreation hub and tourism destination. Our Destination Plan will guide us on how to tap this potential.
With pandemic-driven changes to both consumer travel sentiment and sporting competitions, taking a long view of tourism is needed more than ever. Without a doubt, tourism is a major industry in the greater Rockford Region, and we will all benefit from building back to and beyond 2019 levels when tourism in Winnebago County generated $483.2 million in direct spending ($851.1 million in total spending) and supported over 6,300 jobs. We have a significant gap to close from the low in 2020, when tourism direct spending in Winnebago County declined by over 25% percent, with a loss of over 500 jobs.
I am excited to kick-off this planning effort with the City of Rockford and RPC and many other partners. As the tourism industry and our community recover from the pandemic and persevere through our current economic challenges, we can look to the future with confidence that by taking a long-term view of the possibilities, we can imagine and deliver an exciting, sustainable tourist destination and economy for our region.