By Stephanie Frias from Family Travel Nomads
While there might not be an official marker to note the most sustainable cities in the Midwest, there are telltale signs of a city that cares. And as someone passionate about regional sustainable travel, Rockford, Illinois very quickly landed on my radar.
What makes Rockford, Illinois a Sustainable City?
Sustainability truly takes on many faces, and one by one, Rockford ticked off all the boxes that matter most to me:
Widespread initiatives to support diverse, independent businesses.
A visible bond between the parks districts and downtown tourism boards.
An openness towards urban revitalization projects.
Tangible signs of progress in sourcing natural energy.
The more I researched, the more I cheered! And the more I learned, the more I asked: Why isn’t Rockford getting widespread recognition as a sustainable tourism destination?
I don’t have that answer, but I knew I could do my small part. It’s as simple as making the effort to visit with my family, partner with the Go Rockford tourism board, and connect with as many businesses and parks as possible. And then start talking about it in an effort to spread the word.
How Rockford Supports Diverse, Illinois Businesses
The first confirmation I’d made a sound judgment about Rockford was when I opened our gift basket from Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The Rockford-themed gift basket was stuffed full of ‘Made in Rockford’ local goodies like Mrs. Fishers Potato Chips, Fire Department Coffee, and a custom soy candle by Candle Crest.
But, that was just the start! The rest of our weekend was themed around supporting independent restaurants during Rockford Region Restaurant Week, visiting local businesses vocalizing the importance of conservation, and uncovering a few incredibly inspiring urban revitalization projects.
Discover the best of Rockford along with me!
Featuring a wild and refreshing menu of eclectic Nordic eats, food is probably the first reason to book a table, but the story is what you’ll stay for. The Norwegian sits within a restored historic building saved by a returning Rockford resident who felt called to leave a legacy after her father’s passing - and the surrounding community who rose up to make it happen. It’s a fine example of a female-owned, female-operated business that prioritizes sourcing local ingredients and working with local musicians.
This locally owned adventure company was created by a Rockford resident who thrives in the outdoors and wants to help others do the same. But, Rocktown Adventures is so much more than a gear shop and trail guides, it’s a company passionate about eliminating the obstacles that come between urbanites and the outdoors. They specialize in helping folks figure out what gear they need and where to go, plus they offer lessons and group outings in an effort to remove every barrier between us and nature.
Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden
Klehm, as the locals call it, is a 155-acre preserve just 3 miles south of downtown Rockford.
The name Klehm comes from the local family who donated the land to Winnebago County Forest Preserve District in 1985. But, the property and many of its rare trees date back to 1910 when it was founded by a local landscape architect, who established the land as Rockford Nursery. The formerly private property opened to the public just 20 years ago and is a polestar for conservation education and accessibility to the outdoors.
Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden is the first Rockford museum to join Museums for All, an initiative to make museums accessible to everyone regardless of financial ability. Illinois residents can present an Illinois EBT card for free admission.
Notable Urban Revitalization Projects in Rockford
Rockford’s revitalization projects started making waves about 15 years ago and show no signs of stopping. Just a few years ago, in 2020, the city received a multi-million dollar grant to revitalize downtown Rockford. This kickstarted projects in tourism, converting abandoned buildings into notable hotels, restaurants, and entertainment venues.
Embassy Suites by Hilton Rockford Riverfront
This isn’t your typical Hilton. It’s a one-of-a-kind Embassy Suites with a remarkable story of rejuvenation and dedication. The 107-year-old, 130-story building now home to 160 two-room suites was once a hardware factory that sat abandoned for 25 years and was slotted for demolition.
Instead, the factory in ruins was declared a building of historical importance and was rescued for renovation. It took 3 years of revitalization work, sourced exclusively by local laborers and artists before opening in the summer of 2020 as the Embassy Suites by Hilton Rockford Riverfront. Key features of the soon-to-be iconic hotel include industrial-chic decor elements like unfinished concrete ceilings, plus exposed machinery and pipes belonging to the original construction and floor-to-ceiling windows replicated to look like the original factory windows.
Prairie Street Brewing Company
Located inside the oldest remaining brewery in Illinois, the Prarie Street Brewing Company boasts a modern reinvention of the Midwest brew house. After surviving the prohibition, several ownership changes, and sitting empty as a warehouse for over 50 years, a few local residents bought the building in the late 1990s and reopened it as a brewing company in 2013. The 5-story historic building on the Rock River now serves as an exemplary green business, running a sustainable brewery through solar and geothermal energy.
A Friendship between Rockford Area CVB &
Rockford Parks District
Urban tourism and parks districts don’t always get along as it’s not uncommon for them to compete for funding and resources. But in terms of sustainability, it’s critical for them to come together for the sake of the lands, the community, and tourism.
And praise to Rockford, the tourism organization and parks district are friends.
It’s an inspiring pairing, to see them vying for each other. Go Rockford had no qualms about filling our itinerary with places run by the Rockford Parks District. And the Rockford Parks District clearly reciprocates with countless programs linked to downtown tourism initiatives.
Alpine Hills Adventure Park
This 5-acre urban park is run by the Rockford Parks District in an effort to bring outdoor adventure into the city. It’s located just 4 miles east of downtown Rockford and offers affordable snow tubing, a terrain park for snowboarding, and over 1 mile of multi-use trails. The facility provides snow gear rentals and fat tire bike rentals, as well as snowboarding lessons.
Alpine Hills Adventure Park opened in 2016 and was possible thanks to a grant received by Global Action Sports Solutions, a charity founded on promoting physical activity and access to parks and nature for healthier communities.
Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens at Sinnippissi Park
Yet another inspiring tale of local entrepreneurs is the story of Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens. The creation of this urban nature oasis was made possible after Rockford residents, the Nicholas brothers, donated the lead gift of $2.15 million to build the conservatory and gardens. The brothers spend much of their childhood at this location in Sinnippissi Park and created this Rockford landmark in honor of their deceased parents.
Today, Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens is the 3rd largest conservatory in Illinois, encompassing an 11,000-square-foot tropical greenhouse plus outdoor spaces that include a lagoon, waterfalls, a patio, and a pedestrian bridge linked to the neighboring Sinnissippi Rose Garden.
Burpee Museum of Natural History
Perhaps saving the best for last, the Burpee Museum has been a pride sake of Rockford since 1893. The inspiring story begins with Rockford locals, Harry and Della Burpee, and the WPA funds they received as a result of President Roosevelt’s New Deals programs. The WPA was an unemployment relief program that famously changed the lives of many struggling Americans.
They used the money to open a museum inside the historic Barnes family mansion, which is still used today for special events and office space. An extensive collection of mammals and birds that was established in 1904 can still be viewed today. Yet, in more recent times, the Burpee museum has become internationally recognized for its paleontology program. It is now most famous for housing the most complete juvenile T-rex skeleton known to exist.
In closing, I hope you’ll take a closer look at Rockford, Illinois. This unassuming Midwest city has so many small businesses and parks worth supporting. It is one of my favorite examples of what a sustainable city looks like in 2023!
Photo Credit: Stephanie Frias