- Associated Press - Monday, March 10, 2014

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 had sprung up where other manufacturing had faltered.

In a city known for high unemployment and Rust Belt decay, almost a hundred 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 five or six 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.

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