The powerful stories behind the Barber-Colman cleanup
Travelling north on S. Main today you'll find the works of a major revitalization project: a wider road, beautiful streetlights, a bike path, and more road construction. Once you get up to Lane St., though, you'll find a massive complex filled with broken windows, rusting iron, and cracked concrete. Welcome to Barber-Colman.
At first, second, even third glance you might wonder why the City doesn't demolish this monstrosity. They're doing all of this infrastructure work, and this is what greets downtown visitors? Well let me just say, don't judge a book by its cover.
The Barber-Colman campus is of such national significance, it's been dedicated a federally-protected historic site. Not only is each building architecturally unique, Rockford's spirit of innovation was born here; and with that—dozens of globally-significant patents.
Rockford changed the world with this company. That sounds like an exaggeration, but the revolutionary inventions imagined and developed here changed lives. Barber-Colman transformed the textile industry in such a way that Renewal & Redevelopment magazine writes "Everyone wearing a shirt today has Howard Colman to thank for his invention of the warp-tying machine that automated knots for weaving cloth." And the company created such nowadays-mundane devices like the garage door opener and oscillating fan that we can now call them nowadays-mundane! Here is where Rockford made the machines that made the machines that made the machines. Barber-Colman became Rockford's first multinational corporation, spanning continents.
Like many old companies, Barber-Colman eventually was sold bit by bit until the company was no longer; ceasing full operation in 2001. In 2002, the City of Rockford, recognizing the historic significance of the site, applied for and received both federal and state historic preservation dedications. Not only do these dedications protect the site from demolition, massive federal and state tax incentives are added to make historic sites viable development projects.
The problem with developing historic industrial sites, however, is that you have to clean up decades-worth of industrial hazards. Over a hundred years of constant environmental contamination riddled Barber-Colman that finding a developer was a fools-errand. Knowing this, the City went to work finding grants and funding clean-up crews. But these weren't your average clean-up crews.
Showing off Rockford's innovative spirit, in one of the most significant, life-changing decisions; the City of Rockford developed a program that provided citizens returning from prison with not only job-training but actual jobs. While they were restoring Barber-Colman, they were restoring their own lives. This powerful video encapsulates their story:
Though it has taken many years to clean up Barber-Colman and make it usable again, those efforts will not go unrecognized. Recently renamed Colman Village, Rock Valley College plans to move its manufacturing campus to the historic site; once again honoring our spirit of innovation.
With RVC anchored in a few buildings, the possibilities for the rest of the campus and the southwest side of Rockford are endless. Students, professors, business leaders alike will once again make Barber-Colman a lively, productive facility. It might not make the machines that make the machines anymore; but it'll soon educate the people that'll make the machines that'll make the machines.