Rockford and the I-39 Corridor have a long and interesting manufacturing history. In the 1850s, one of the first companies to establish in the area was J. H. Manny & Co., a manufacturer of wheat reapers. The company would later be embroiled in a high-profile legal case with McCormick Harvesting Machine Company that would involve future president Abraham Lincoln.
From those roots and to this day, manufacturing has been an important part of the region’s economy. LandMark Real Estate Group broker, C. Shane Van Sickle, SIOR, attributes this to the area’s character and demographics.
“A lot of the activity up here tends to be manufacturing based because we have a great labor pool, pretty robust logistics infrastructure, the cost of doing business is a little bit more favorable and the municipalities are easier to work with,” Van Sickle said.
Manufacturing is a segment of industrial sometimes forgotten lately in the rush of logistical warehouses brought about by the advent of e-commerce. For Rockford, it’s been a part of the fabric more or less since the city’s founding. That said, there is a move to change this identity, if only slightly.
“We’ve made a very concerted effort over the past 20 years to transform from a nuts and bolts town to a high-tech manufacturing base,” said Van Sickle.
In July, UTC Aerospace Systems, a unit of United Technologies Corp., opened a new aircraft technologies lab in Rockford. The facility is dedicated to the accelerated development of more intelligent and connected aircraft systems to optimize airline operational efficiency.
Another aerospace firm, Woodward, maintains a regional headquarters in Loves Park. A few years ago, they expanded their Rock Cut campus in Rockford. The manufacturing and office complex was a joint venture with yet a third aerospace firm, GE Aviation.
The $250 million project was designed to draw up, build and service the fuel systems within large commercial engines. Woodward has announced plans to expand hiring after 2020 specifically for production manufacturing jobs.
“The trickle-down effect means that tier one, two, three and beyond suppliers work with those guys, including local manufacturers that have a product base even outside of high-tech,” said Van Sickle.
LandMark is developing a new, 100,000-square-foot building in their Park 90 Corporate Center in Machesney Park. The building will serve as a new headquarters for Quantum Design, consolidating operations they currently have in Loves Park, Rockford and South Beloit.
Quantum Design is primarily a developer of automation controls and they also fabricate equipment for the printing, label, steel and other industries. The location in Machesney Park was chosen for its centralized location and easy access to I-90 for current employees.
“It’s important to me to retain the loyal and hardworking employees we have worked hard to find and train, some who have been with us since the beginning and others who have joined our team through the years,” said Quantum Design president Danny Pearse. “Our employees are ultimately what drives our success.”
Park 90 Corporate Center is a 220-acre industrial park and logistics center close to the I-90 and Route 173 interchange within a newly created TIF district. Quantum Design’s facility is slated for completion in early 2019.
A bit down to earth but still high-tech, a lot of the region’s manufacturing surrounds the automotive industry. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) runs an assembly plant that first opened in Belvidere in 1965. At nearly 5 million square feet, the factory today employs more than 5,000 auto workers.
Many ancillary firms are attracted to FCA’s presence as well, further boosting the manufacturing presence in the region. For example, last year Becknell Industrial built a 221,844-square-foot facility for Magna, a designer and manufacturer of automotive systems and components. The modern property offers 32-foot clear height, 20 docks and 50-foot by 50-foot column spacing.
Of course, low-tech manufacturing continues in the area. LandMark just delivered a 336,000-square-foot, build-to-suit lease for Yung Fang Plastic Co., a Taiwanese plastic injection mold supplier. The company is also in the middle of a $10 million, 66,000-square-foot new build for PBC Linear, a fabricator of bearings, actuators and custom machined parts. That project is expected to wrap up later this year.
“Part of the attraction to the I-39 Corridor in general is—in contrast to closer to Chicago—the availability of shovel-ready, fully developed land sites along the tollway,” Van Sickle said. “The corridor can accommodate anything from small infill projects to several million square feet.”
The industrial landscape has morphed over the last decade. Though the Rockford area is not seeing the same level of spec warehouse space pop up as in other parts of the Chicago MSA, it remains on good footing as a mix of traditional and high-tech manufacturers help diversify the state’s industrial makeup.