Read Collaborate Freeport’s column in the Journal Standard to learn about the exciting things happening for Freeport and All In.

All in: Logan’s Bar & Grill gives back to Freeport

By Michelle Magee, Logan’s Bar & Grill
March 13, 2018

At Logan’s, we strive to make the community in which we live our main focus. We do this by giving back to those who live here, as well as giving back to our community as a whole. We frequently host events focused on our community. Perhaps you have heard about these events and maybe have even attended some.

Fundraisers for both Freeport High School’s and Highland Community College’s sports teams are always well-received. Individual fundraisers for those in Freeport and nearby communities battling illnesses and uninsured expenses are dear to us. We also host events that we hope bring people together and encourage them to meet new people. Perhaps you have come out to our team trivia nights as a member of a team or just to observe. Do you enjoy live music? Logan’s has that on a regular basis.

Logan’s is doing its part to bring events to Freeport for everyone. We welcome you to bring your children out for live music and dancing. Our motto, “Where community is No. 1 and customers become family,” could not be more true. We love the community support for the events we host. Freeport is a great place to live with a lot of great people.

Like most communities, Freeport has its troubles, but the more we do, the better our community becomes. When we all give back, even a little, Freeport becomes a better place in which to live and grow.

I understand we all live busy lives, but ask yourself, how hard would it be to take a couple of hours each week to focus on the community you live in? Giving back to the community you live in should not feel like an obligation; it should be an enjoyable part of our daily routine.

At Logan’s we do just that. We make giving back to our community part of our daily routine. We hope to pass that “giving back” feeling to our customers, children, family and friends. We encourage you to put down your cell phone, tablet or computer; go out and be involved in your community.

We promise it will make you feel better. Being involved doesn’t always mean giving money; it means giving your time more than anything. Tidy up your neighborhood, support local businesses, volunteer and help raise money. You may surprise yourself how good it feels to help your community. We at Logan’s hope that you will visit our events and become part of our family of friends.

Michelle McGee is the owner of Logan’s Bar and Grill, Freeport

All in: Bicycle gravel racing in Freeport

By Stu Garwick, Freeport Bicycle Company
March 6, 2018

The cycling world, in spite of its tendency to honor its traditions beyond their sell-by dates, is always evolving ever more creative ways to enjoy our two-wheeled lives.

Gravel riding has actually been around for a long time, going back to the roots of two-wheeling itself when hardy cyclists flew their high-wheel penny farthing cycles down the only roads that existed back then — dirt and gravel.

Pavement has tended to crowd out the gravel over the last century or so, especially around densely populated areas, making the current gravel scene somewhat rural-centric. Good for us in the northwest corner of Illinois — many well-known gravel events are easily accessible to us in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan.

But first, some notes on terminology: some will refer to a given gravel event as just that — a “gravel event.” Others will refer to the same event as a “gravel race.” In some cases, the event organizers push the race aspect by having a reward system with prizes and a podium recognition for the winners in different age, gender or equipment categories.

Great — we’ll call it a race. Other events, with no such prize system we’ll call an event. What you call it really depends on how you intend to ride it; some of us show up at an event, and regardless of the size of the rewards for the swift, ride with goals to merely survive, reach the finish, have a good time along the way and cross the line in good enough cheer to have a beer or two before heading home.

Even in the absence of rewards for the winners, some love the competition and will choose to race the event. This is the beauty of gravel events; every rider can decide what they want the event to be and ride it accordingly based on what they want out of it. We all have our own ideas of what constitutes fun and are unrestrained in how we ride these events.

Part of the reason for the indeterminate nature of gravel events has to do with the grassroots origins of the genre, which in itself is a sort of rebellion against the highly organized kit-and-carbon world of amateur road racing in America. The race fees, rule book, race officials, license requirements, course marshals, dress code (yes, it’s in the rule book) all add up to making sanctioned road racing less inviting to the masses.

Gravel events are free, or low cost, have very few rules if any at all, and don’t care what or how you are riding.

To check out a list of gravel rides go to:

Stu Garwick is the owner of Freeport Bicycle Company.

All In: A cleaner Freeport means greater growth and pride

By Stephanie Feld, Be the Change
February 27, 2018

When I was just 10 years old, I sat some of my closest friends down in my bedroom and pitched my idea of forming the Freeport Junior Community Service Club in which we would spend every other weekend doing something good for our community. There were five or six of us that banded together in an attempt to spread some love and positivity.

That summer, and for many weekends to follow, we went to local nursing homes to spend time with residents — talking with them, singing for them, reading to them or sometimes just sitting there beside them. We gave mini-presentations at the library, volunteered at a day center for individuals with disabilities, and picked up litter around our neighborhoods when the weather was nice. Picking litter quickly became my favorite activity and was a simple way to make a big impact.

Though the club fizzled out in the late 1990s (along with a few terrible hairstyles), my passion to serve my community burns brighter than ever before. Now, 20 years of life experience later, while understanding the importance of community stewardship and volunteerism, my unwavering need to spread love and positivity is being fulfilled through Be The Change — a grassroots initiative to beautify the community while breaking down barriers and building bridges toward a brighter future.

Since March 2015, we have been raising awareness of our environmental impact by providing educational tools for area youth as well as resources to lessen our footprint. We are committed to creating a network of dedicated, forward thinking change-makers as we continue to collaborate and build relationships with residents, businesses and organizations alike.

Each year, we host a variety of community cleanups that have had hundreds of participants who successfully cleared hundreds of bags of litter and illegally dumped waste from Freeport! This initiative started as just one small, organized cleanup hosted by a caring citizen but has grown into something truly beautiful for this place we call home.

April 28 will be our fourth annual Superhero Cleanup and we are on track to cleaning up our entire city this year. This special day is dedicated to tidying up Freeport so that we can get a fresh start come springtime. Everyone deserves a clean and healthy environment in which to live, work, learn and play, and tons of local businesses, organizations and residents have been pledging to make sure that happens.

Volunteering, giving back and caring for one another are things we all can do. This world seriously needs so much more of that! Picking up litter will do much more than just make us look better. We will start to feel better about ourselves, too. A cleaner environment can create a solid foundation for Freeport to flourish and could lead to higher property values, less crime, more businesses looking to move here and an increase in pride for this place we all call home. Let’s Be The Change — together.

Stephanie Feld, grime fighter, Be the Change.

International Preservation Studies Center coming to Highland

By Tim Hood, Highland Community College
February 20, 2018

Highland Community College has an exciting announcement on the horizon. Within the next month, we hope to be home to an international program bringing people from all over the world to Freeport.

Although we are still in the transfer-of-program process, I would like to share with you as much information as possible regarding the International Preservation Studies Center.

The internationally recognized, one-of-a-kind program started in 1980 at the former Shimer College campus in Mount Carroll. Students from across the U.S. and other countries enroll in classes to develop skills in the preservation of artifacts, architecture, museum collections and other historic pieces. Unfortunately, due to overhead and maintenance, the 14-acre campus with 14 historic buildings was too much for the small nonprofit to support. Last year, the Campbell Center Board decided that IPSC needed to find a new home to keep the program going.

Highland and other state universities were approached with an invitation to consider purchasing IPSC. Because of the excellent working relationship between Highland and the Campbell Center with mutual strong levels of support, Highland became the preferred recipient of the program. However, before considering any new Highland program, we carefully evaluate or assess viability and community impact.

We found the program’s enrollment numbers have more than doubled in the past three years, bringing the total of enrollments to nearly 300 in 2017. Instructors are contracted part-time from across the globe, and classes must achieve minimum enrollment in terms of covering costs in order to run.

We also discovered that Highland’s humanities, social sciences and fine arts division, in concert with our Lifelong Learning program, provides an ideal fit for IPSC. Lifelong Learning brings community education to the footprint of our towns. The goal of Lifelong Learning is to offer both credit and noncredit courses throughout Highland’s four-county district, delivering learning opportunities that range from personal and professional enrichment to certification preparation.

The program’s vision is to serve all populations throughout the college’s district, including community members, seniors, and the region’s business professionals. While IPSC is expected to be housed on the main campus, other Lifelong Learning courses are available throughout the year in communities throughout our college district.

Beyond the obvious values for Highland, there are opportunities for Freeport and the surrounding area with the IPSC acquisition. We expect to welcome more than 200 new students and 50 instructors within the first year to Highland. We are optimistic that the enrollment number will jump back to 300 in 2019. These individuals will stay here, shop here and dine here, sending a financial ripple effect throughout our communities.

We are excited about the potential of offering hospitality from our communities to these individuals as they enjoy visiting and learning in our beautiful northwestern Illinois area — bringing the world to our corridor. Please, join us in this collaborative effort. We are so pleased to share another great example of how Highland is “All In.”

Tim Hood is the President of Highland Community College.

All In: Transforming Freeport: A view from 50 miles away

By Eric Dregne, Next Level
February 13, 2018

Two years ago, I met a group from Freeport at the Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque, Iowa. The team included partners from nearly a dozen organizations. I was impressed — with the team and with the vision for a more vibrant, healthy and engaged community. I had been working in Dubuque, leading community change initiatives since 2005, including community visioning and initiatives related to workforce, equity/inclusion, and improving outcomes for young people.

About a year later, I found myself in Freeport facilitating a group of about 80 people as they thought about how dozens of diverse groups in the community could work better together using a process called Collective Impact. At that time, I could see the progress being made — people and organizations had taken intentional steps to work better together. Together, stakeholders had begun to align efforts in the community, define leadership roles, and set a clear shared agenda. Important steps on a path for bringing new opportunity and growth to a community.

I was reminded of the Vision 2020 Galena process few years prior. Hundreds of community members took part and we defined a vision for Galena. The community got behind ideas like riverfront development, a new arts/culture center, and expansion of the history museum and the recreation center — all of these ideas are in progress today thanks to the combined and aligned grassroots efforts in the community.

Freeport has created the same opportunity. The efforts being led by a grassroots group — Collaborate Freeport, and supported by several organizations within the community along with local government, are gaining traction and build on each other. The city government is also taking action, having adopted a council-manager form of government last spring and a Strategic Vision and Goals for the very first time last December.

What’s most important is the city and community-led Collaborate Freeport are intentionally working together along with dozens of other organizations that represent downtown, the arts community, business, economic development and efforts to grow tourism. Together, they understand how a clear and shared vision for the city’s future engages residents and aligns partnerships — critical first steps to transforming the community.

This is the same kind of intentional, planned effort that successfully transformed Dubuque. Early steps there began after unemployment peaked at 23 percent — the highest in the nation. Dubuque’s turnaround started with leadership from the business community, followed by new leadership and planning within city government. Then a focus on public private partnerships led to greater investment and growth over the last 20 years. That’s the thing though — it takes time, it takes long-term commitment.

Just imagine how Freeport’s future success will impact northwest Illinois when it connects with similar success along Highway 20 in Galena and Dubuque! That’s one reason why I’m all-in for Freeport, even from 50 miles away. It’s why we should all cheer Freeport’s efforts to build a more vibrant, healthy and engaged community.

Eric Dregne is founder of Next Level.

All In: Association of Lincoln Presenters comes to Freeport

By Laura Keys, Freeport Public Library
February 7, 2018

Have you ever seen a gathering of Abraham Lincolns? How about a procession of Mary Lincolns? Even if you have, make plans to be in Freeport this spring. From April 19-22, Freeport will host the annual Association of Lincoln Presenters conference.

Every year since 1995, cities from Burbank-Redlands, California, to Washington, D.C., have seen an influx of historical presenters committed to telling the story of the Lincolns to audiences around the country. This year’s organizer is Mary Lincoln presenter and Freeport resident Laura Keyes.

Keyes has been portraying women from history for over a decade and is devoted to the idea that not merely telling but showing the story of a figure from history enables engagement with a wider audience that is not often achievable in other mediums. Keyes also is an advocate of local history, emphasizing preservation, education and engagement with community organizations.

For those reasons, in addition to the part played by Freeport as the second of seven locations of the historic 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, she successfully pitched Freeport to the association as the location for its 2018 conference. Every year, the conference draws attendees from all over the nation, serving as an occasion for lectures, presentations, local tours, networking and fundraising.

Of equal importance to members of the association is using the conference as a time to work together to further their understanding of the Lincoln family not as myth or caricature, but as flesh-and-blood people who were at center stage during a watershed period of American history.

In making their decision, the association recognized that the resident of Freeport and the surrounding area have shown an interest in history and tradition without sacrificing the drive required to build a dynamic community for future generations.

This has translated into a variety of historical locations and monuments, venues for lectures and informal gatherings and a selection of restaurants, hotels and leisure activities with the same message: Freeport is worth the stop.

Each of these elements enable or support association events for the weekend, which include a Lincoln in Conversation presentation and dessert reception at Winneshiek Theatre, a keynote presentation and gala at the Freeport Club, a tour of the Stephenson County Historical Society and a Readin’ With Lincoln event at the Freeport Public Library.

The fact that citizens of Freeport and Stephenson County have begun to take ownership and make real investments in the Collaborate Freeport initiative is encouraging. The continuation of events like Cruise Night, as well as the addition of new ones like Paint the Port is proof.

But the fact that an outside organization committed to historic presentation and education — with the goal of fostering understanding and dialogue — chose Freeport as the site of its 2018 conference should be a signal that things are changing still further for the better.

All In: Kayaking on the Pecatonica River

By Lee Butler, Friends of the Pecatonica River
January 30, 2018

Our Pecatonica River is beautiful here in Stephenson County. There is always something new and different to see or hear just around the bend. Fifteen years ago, I was invited to go on a canoe trip on the Pec. I was paddling in the bow of a canoe. I thought to myself, “This is beautiful. You can’t see this water trail from the front seat of a car!” The next spring, I went out and bought a kayak, even though my sciatica was flaring.

A couple of years later, I bought a second kayak so that I could share this newfound kayaking activity with a friend.

I’ve grown my kayak fleet over the years so I can invite more people to go kayaking and enjoy the pleasures of a good paddle. My program has mostly spread by word of mouth from kayaking friends and from those I’ve had the pleasure of paddling with. Being retired, I have the time. Promoting kayaking on our beautiful Pecatonica River is my little way of giving back to our community. It is a wonderful thing to see the joy and happiness in people during the trip and at the end of a kayak adventure down the Pec.

There are a few things you should know before heading down the Pec. The 120 rule applies to safe kayaking. Water temperature plus air temperature. If you tip over in temperatures below that, you could die from hypothermia. Always wear a life preserver.

Be aware that danger also lurks underneath the water. There are brush piles called strainers or sometimes a sweeper. Getting caught in one of these underwater hazards can tip you over and drag you under. There are also submerged objects in the water that can tip you over as well. A paddler has to constantly watch the water looking for water ripples that will give you a sign of a possible hazard.

You should never paddle during flood conditions when the water is high and running fast. Never paddle alone. There is a river gauge here in Freeport that gives the depth and current velocity. Use it to make sure you are going to be paddling in safe water.

We have many different lengths of kayak trips on our Pecatonica River near Freeport. It’s a half-mile from Tutty’s Crossing to the Hancock Marina, 3 miles from Tutty’s Crossing to the VFW and a 9-mile trip from Wes Block to the VFW.

There are many more combinations, all the way to 100 miles from Browntown, Wisconsin, to Macktown Forest Preserve near Rockton. There are convenient stops every 6-12 miles along the way.

The Friends of the Pecatonica River Foundation’s mission is to preserve, protect and foster the vitality of the Pecatonica River for the plant, animal and human communities within the Stephenson County watershed. We work to provide clean, safe, public access to the river.

There is a lot of Pecatonica River information at, which I encourage you to take a look at. I also hope to see you out there this year on our beautiful river. Drop me an email at if I can be of any assistance in getting you into a kayak and joining us on our many river adventures in 2018.

All In: Freeport is ready for entrepreneurial vision

By Bill Green, Owner, Wagner House
January 23, 2018

Last Wednesday, I found myself walking around my downtown building, greeting guests and talking about wine and spirits — two of my favorite topics. I strolled upstairs to check on an event taking place on the second floor, adjusted the lights, and then replaced a soda carbonation tank that had run out. After saying good night to a few guests, and making some last-minute checks on the bartenders, wait staff and chef, I headed home.

It’s safe to say I didn’t know everything I needed to know when I entered the hospitality industry two years ago and opened The Wagner House. Honestly, I still don’t have all the right answers, nor do I always make the right decisions. But what I did have two years ago, and still have today, is a vision.

My vision to redevelop a 100-year-old, three-story industrial building in downtown Freeport into a new event center, restaurant and bar didn’t come to me in a dream in the middle of the night. The idea behind The Wagner House was born after listening to family, friends, community leaders and other visionaries who believed Freeport was worth investing in.

Entrepreneurs seldom have all the information or experience needed to execute a vision. They take risks and have to trust their instincts and their ability to solve problems, and meet the many challenges and obstacles that are bound to get in the way of the vision. Entrepreneurs know that moving a vision forward sometimes requires you go to work whether you are ready or not.

Two years ago, my vision led me to 1 E. Spring St., Freeport — the former Wagner Printing building. In repurposing the former print shop into a new space for people to meet, dine, socialize and host the most important events in their lives, my vision would lead me to 16-hour days and a new understanding of the complexities, challenges and — at times — headaches of redeveloping a building built in 1903.

But turning that vision into reality has also given me a great amount of satisfaction. There is a great deal of satisfaction in seeing your vision blossom in front of you — knowing the investment that has gone into it, the battles that have been fought along the way, the sacrifices that have been made and the sustained passion and effort needed to keep the project moving forward day in and day out.

There is great joy in seeing your family, friends, neighbors and your community respond to your realized vision with smiles, laughter and enjoyment.

Freeport is ready for impassioned entrepreneurs with new ideas and a new vision for the community. It’s ready for new businesses and new ventures. It’s inviting you — like it did me — to turn your vision into reality and share with the world what you can do. Are you ready to step up to the challenge?

Bill Green is owner of The Wagner House in downtown Freeport.

All In: After jumping, that first entrepreneurial step is a doozy

By Nicole Sdao, Founder and CEO, NonProfitTHRIVE
January 16, 2018

Are you ready to jump? That’s the first question you need to answer as an entrepreneur. The answer has to have action, of course. I like to say that I “put the universe on notice” in the fall of 2013 when I spoke these words out loud: “I want to do something on the internet that will help all nonprofits.”

Yep, that’s how vague it was. I didn’t know what exactly; I just knew this was weighing heavy on my heart and mind for months and I needed to do something about it. After jumping, that first step is a doozy. An entrepreneur has to start moving forward, which means taking steps. None of the steps come in the same size; some feel more like baby steps, while others are like stretching across a crevasse.

Some of my steps were scribbling on a notepad what I wanted my site to look like and finding a web developer; others were traveling the country doing market research and understanding my customers. The key is, you have to keep moving.

People will give you directions, also known as advice. Listen to it all. You wouldn’t be able to act on every piece of advice and you shouldn’t, at least not right away. I have been so blessed to start this entrepreneurial venture in Freeport! It is a more supportive environment than I could’ve imagined! Thank you to everyone who has put in the time to learn and support me through this. Some of the advice I have in the back of my mind or written down for when the time is right. Some I took immediately, like when I was given the information about the NIU EIGERlab.

In 2015, I was one of the finalist in the NIU EIGERlab FastPitch competition. I won the inaugural Dale Falkner Spirit of Entrepreneurship Award. This was a key step as it came with a one-year membership to the NIU EIGERlab Business Incubation/Co-working space.

For that year, I had the opportunity to analyze what I’ve been doing for the last two years and answer the, “What’s next?” question. Sometimes, moving means pivoting and going in a new direction. Which is what I did in January 2016, when was conceived. I was, for all intents and purposes, starting over. Now what? Keep moving forward.

Keep moving forward meant more steps, with more commitment and investment. I stopped seeing patients (I’m a chiropractor by profession), found a new web development company, and every day meant tweaking and redefining.

Every step in the process is so important and timed perfectly, as I know that this is bigger than me. I recently finished a seven-week intense business-acceleration program with gBETA of Beloit, a division of Genor8tor, a nationally ranked accelerator that invests in high-growth startups.

To say this experience was amazing is an understatement. The next steps … I’d love to tell you more.

Nicole Sado is founder/CEO, NonProfitTHRIVE

All In: Look toward a sustainable future for Freeport

By Amy Fairweather, Creative Director, Collaborate Freeport
January 9, 2018

Let’s cut straight to the chase. The level of progress being made in the community is undeniable, has accelerated at a very high rate of speed, and is likely to continue in this pattern until the new matrix and structure is set and functioning. This change is what we’ve been asking for and it is exciting to see. This progress isn’t being made by doing the same things we’ve always done. It’s being made by pushing through old paradigms and philosophies and taking bold new approaches to the same old problems. The parasite of negativity, skepticism and criticism is being drowned out by more healthy attitudes, invested people and open hearts.

Collaborate Freeport was created out of necessity … the necessity to tell our story with a fresh perspective and utilizing today’s technology. The ALL IN campaign focuses on marketing to an otherwise missed demographic and it’s being done in a concise, collective and compelling way. A few local agencies saw the value of this movement and joined together to rally for a new form of government, which was embraced by the voters.

We are now eight months into a new way of doing things and the chemistry of Freeport is changing. We have seen a tremendous shift in attitudes towards the future of Freeport and Stephenson County through the latest survey we conducted and this data verifies we are meeting our goal of shifting the narrative. As Freeport’s late Arnold H. Glasow once quipped, “progress is what happens when impossibility yields to necessity.”

2018 is the year to say what you mean and mean what you say, and there are a few things I would personally like to clarify to the community about what Collaborate Freeport is and stands for:

Collaborate Freeport is a movement created to help stir up the community and encourage everyone to work better together, collectively. The brand “Freeport ALL IN” is the internal campaign created to call people to action and to ask themselves, “Am I ALL IN, have I been ALL IN, do I need to get ALL IN?” and start seeing themselves as a part of the whole and a brighter future. The brand “ALL IN Freeport” is the external campaign which invites people to our area by leveraging our assets and telling them about the good things we have to offer.

– Collaborate Freeport isn’t a club with membership … it’s a movement and anyone can get involved. It’s not mine… it’s ours.

– Collaborate Freeport doesn’t discriminate. We are not just working for the downtown or for a particular demographic. We promote those things in the area worth someone’s time to stop. We have plenty of things to promote and this is just the beginning.

– Collaborate Freeport champions the following values: history; art, culture and design; the outdoor experience; hard work/entrepreneurial spirit; giving back; and diversity. These values are the backbone to the success of our area.

– Collaborate Freeport’s three-year campaign is funded by 86 percent private money. Here’s the breakdown: We’ve raised $436,350 to date — $20,000 of the $436,350 is public and has been invested by the Freeport Park District, $40,000 of $436,350 has been invested via reallocation of the CVB’s budgeted hotel/motel tax that comes from outside of the city (this is not local tax). $376,350 has been invested by private money. In other words, Collaborate Freeport has injected an infusion of well over a quarter of a million dollars of new investment to regionally market our local economy. This is a huge gesture to all of us from our private citizens and businesses that see the value. We have 37 private investors to be exact.

Moving forward, it is my wish that each of us can start looking at things long term. What can we do to stop looking backward and start putting things back together in a way that is sustainable for our future’s future. Let’s get out of our own way and let’s be ALL IN.

All In: Attitude changes everything

By John Harris, Principal, a5 Digital and Branding
January 2, 2018

In 2016, as Collaborate Freeport formed, it was clear that Freeport had an identity issue. Once a proud and successful community, Freeport appeared to be, at best, stagnating, and at worst, sliding backward.

Through one-on-one conversations with nearly 100 people and small group meetings, it was clear Freeport needed to look at itself in a different way. Yet many were skeptical; previous efforts at organizing the community to create momentum had not been successful. Would Collaborate Freeport have impact?

We needed data to understand the depth of the identity crisis. With leadership from Amy Dreibelbis Fairweather of D+F Photography, Brian Helm from the Helm Group and Dave Young from NIDA (along with two dozen steering committee leaders), we devised a three-pronged approach to engaging the community: an email survey, in-person interviews and public events: free coffee at 9 East, a booth at the Stephenson County Fair (manned by Danielle Rogers of Freeport Downtown Development Foundation) and free ice cream at Union Dairy.

Free ice cream draws a crowd.

On a Thursday afternoon in early June 2016, we rolled up to Union Dairy in downtown Freeport at about 5:45 expecting to see a person or two queued up for a free scoop of ice cream.

What we saw was a line two blocks long. In addition to showing up for free ice cream (courtesy of Collaborate Freeport, its investors and Union Dairy), people of all ages and races came out to share their opinions on Freeport’s past, present and future.

In about two hours, we gathered more than 400 surveys from folks young and old, male and female, students and professionals.

And while the participation was strong and the opinions free flowing, the responses showed that 45 percent of those surveyed felt Freeport was headed in the wrong direction. Only 32 percent said Freeport was going in the right direction.

Moreover, only five percent of those responding thought the attitude of Freeport folks was “very positive” or “mostly positive.” Forty percent thought the attitude was “in between” and 55 percent was “mostly negative” and “very negative.”

Attitude is everything. When you feel good about where you are and where you are going, you can create an environment of positive change. Excitement. Opportunity. You can dream — and achieve.

The community went to work. The Collaborate Freeport steering committee, working with a5, developed the All In brand. From the research, it was clear we need Freeport and Stephenson County residents to believe — to be “all in” for the community. Values were developed. Events were created, supported and fostered. On social media, on the web, at meetings and in The Journal-Standard, positive stories focused on what is really good about Freeport and Stephenson County were told.

The message spread: To be a successful community again, the narrative had to change, and perceptions had to shift.

One year later, we surveyed Freeport again. At the end of 2017, 72 percent now believe Freeport is headed in the right direction.

And the attitude has improved markedly. 75 percent of respondents feel the community attitude is “in between,” “mostly positive” and “very positive.”

In the survey, we also asked people if they felt positive momentum had been generated. The answer was “yes.” From the establishment of the city manager form of government to the optimism of the new mayor to downtown developments, survey respondents had good things to say about Freeport’s direction.

While there is a long way to go, Freeport enters 2018 with a sense of optimism. Good things are happening, from MetLife’s decision to the progress made downtown to the All In Freeport campaign that will roll out in the second quarter. And, importantly, there is a desire to go from “Freeport good” to “great.”

Collaborate Freeport, and the All In brand, will continue to develop, working to foster an environment for progress — and telling people inside and outside Freeport why the city and surrounding areas are a great place to live, to start and grow a business and visit.

All in: The lesson of always learning

By Evan Talbert, Highland Community College Hospitality Management Instructor
December 19, 2017

The idea of always learning is something I have believed strongly, even before becoming the Hospitality Management Instructor at Highland Community College two years ago. Learning is at the very essence of education. Always learning is how we continue throughout our lives to open doors, explore new possibilities, acquire a better understanding and knowledge of our community and the world around us, and move ahead in that world.

My hope is that my students will graduate from Highland with a better understanding of society and have a greater sense of what knowledge and skills will be needed for their futures, not only as professionals in the hospitality industry but, more importantly, as citizens of this world. My hope is all of our students pick up these key life lessons as they begin their lives as adults.

In many industries, someone who is good in their particular career — whether it be as a server, chef, mechanic or teller — is rewarded with promotion. But sometimes what gets lost in that promotion is the understanding of how to be a successful leader. The ability to lead is learned along the way, with experience and guidance in the forefront. Every successful community needs leaders in order to grow.

It sounds cliché, but we must learn how to go the extra mile for people, no matter if it is a take-out meal, a corporate meeting or a wedding. Customer service can make or break a business, and those of us in the hospitality industry have the ability to make an experience a forgettable or memorable one.

I teach my students to look through the eyes of the most demanding guest. What would they notice that wasn’t perfect, wasn’t up to the highest standards? We must learn how to take the time to listen and then to make things perfect, not only for them, but for us. Details are the most important detail.

Finally, things change. What was once in is now out. Change today happens at the blink of an eye. Technology and social media are a big part of today’s world and are growing bigger and bigger by the minute. We must always keep up with what’s new, be able to identify future trends and adapt our response to change that is inevitable to occur.

In the tourism industry we often discuss the interconnected nature of the many parts: hotels, restaurants, activities, shopping, transportation, etc., and the vital roles they all play in our communities. I’m excited about the all-in branding effort because I believe it will take all of us working together to move Freeport and Stephenson County forward.

Each of us needs to do our part and make the commitment to always be learning about what it takes to sustain success in our community. We move ahead by learning — always.

Evan Talbert is the Highland Community College hospitality management instructor.

All In: 2018 plans for Collaborate Freeport

By Amy Fairweather
December 12, 2017

Hopefully by now you are noticing that each week Collaborate Freeport is bringing to light a new voice from our community to scribe about a value they or their organization is championing. Last week, Dean Wright articulated the power of giving back to those who are less fortunate. The week before that, Jack Carey from the Freeport Park District painted a symphonic picture of the importance our parks play in the outdoor experience. Jessica Modica from the Freeport Art Museum expressed the importance of always learning and the power of storytelling to help engage people with what art museums have to offer.

This week, Collaborate Freeport would like to give a huge thanks to our partner FHN for generously donating 50 percent of the proceeds from the annual Festival of Trees Gala. FHN fully realizes the important link between what it means to be ALL IN and the health of community. They recognize that it takes education, advocacy and willpower to champion those values that will help transform us into a more whole, vibrant and engaged county. For their mighty efforts as an institution and a lead employer in the area we are grateful.

We are swiftly sliding into a new year and Collaborate Freeport is finalizing the 2018 marketing plan that will continue to help place Freeport and Stephenson County on the map while accelerating the brand into a broader region. We are strategically aligning the ALL IN Freeport campaign in locations we’ve never been such as, and not limited to, multiple Metra train stops in the Chicago area and billboards along Route 20, Janesville and Beloit, and near Madison, Wisconsin. We will do day samplings of our local flavors at the Belvidere Oasis on I-90 while having a large presence in the interior of the high-traffic stop. Our goal is to plant new seeds about who and where we are through simple yet significant messaging.

In 2018 we will be launching a co-op marketing plan that will connect local businesses with marketing efforts in a more cohesive and comprehensive way. Businesses that choose to collaborate in this effort will be able to promote their brand to a larger market while simultaneously helping fund the Collaborate Freeport initiative as well.

Our brand-new website is evolving and growing with hundreds of hits every day. We encourage you and your organization to visit the event page and enter in upcoming events to market to a wider audience. Please engage with us and send us feedback! This website was built to be a community generator to help inform, excite, educate and lead people into and around our community in a user-friendly way. If you haven’t been yet, check it out.

Launching by year’s end and into the new year are six interview-style videos we’ve been diligently crafting to help tell our community story. They touch on our region’s hard work and entrepreneurial spirit, livability, the downtown, history, outdoor experience, always learning and much more. You will see yourself and others in them as we slowly roll them out on social media and on our website and we encourage you to share them when you see them.

We look forward to what 2018 has to offer! We believe that the ordinary can be extraordinary and that there is beauty in imperfection. People work better together when we celebrate similarities over differences, and as a united community we will keep the momentum of growth in our region moving forward.

All In: Cherish the giving nature of northwest Illinois

By Dean Wright, Director of the Freeport Area Church Cooperative
December 5, 2017

If I’m being truly honest, I would admit as the director of a homeless shelter and food pantry that this is not necessarily my favorite time of year. The arrival of cold weather signals the beginning of the season in which homeless people need to find a warm place to stay and where rising heating bills leave many families short on money and, subsequently, short on food.

It’s the time of year when the Freeport Area Church Cooperative becomes an almost 24-hour/seven-day-a-week operation, and with that comes a number of challenges and headaches.

Couple the increase of clients with our organization’s only fundraiser — the Mayor’s Hunger Luncheon (which, by the way, is Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Wagner House; tickets are $25 at the door) — and the assembly and delivery of 210 Christmas baskets to families in need, and the days can get long.

That said, this is also the time of year when I get to witness some truly amazing things. Each year, FACC’s food pantry receives and distributes over $180,000 worth of food to more than 3,000 men, women, and children who find themselves short on food. What might surprise you is that 70 percent of those who come to us in need of food only come to our food pantry once or twice per year. Only a very small number (7 percent) meet or exceed the maximum allowable visits of six times per year.

What might also surprise you is what the “typical” (or average) FACC pantry client looks like. When breaking down the demographics of our clients, we find our “typical” pantry client is a widowed female over the age of 65 who is living on a very low fixed income from Social Security.

Though we — like most social service agencies — certainly serve our share of people who take advantage of the system, our data suggests most of our pantry users are responsible people who only ask for our assistance when they absolutely have to. I suspect our experience of pantry usage is similar to the other food pantries in the area as well.

But the truly amazing thing that occurs each year in our pantry is witnessing the tremendous amount of support we receive within the community. The vast majority of the 40 tons of food FACC distributes each year comes from our community through various organization food drives, monthly giving through our many churches, and just random acts of giving by individuals who feel compelled to help those in need.

I imagine most social service organizations in Freeport and in the surrounding communities each have stories about how the people in our region step up every day to help their neighbors and to make their communities a better place for all of us. The giving nature of northwest Illinois is one of the cherished attributes of the people in our region, and I’m blessed to have a front row seat to witness the commitment we have to each other.

Dean Wright is the Freeport Area Church Cooperative director.

In a time of constant connectivity and social media, park systems provide valuable service

By Jack Carey, Executive Director of the Freeport Parks District
November 28, 2017

Sometimes in the late afternoon after the staff has left for their homes and the phones have stopped ringing at the Freeport Park District, I can sit in my office and catch the familiar click and clack sounds of skateboards and their riders working on new tricks at the Park District’s Skate Park adjacent to our offices in Read Park.

Some summer evenings when I’m sitting on my back deck of where I live near the entrance of Krape Park–if the wind is blowing from the right direction–I can catch the calliope music from the Krape Park Carousel over the roar of water spilling over the dam on Yellow Creek.

And it’s common over most weekends to spot young people playing a game of pickup basketball or families out in droves to support their son or daughter in one of the many baseball and softball tournaments hosted at Read Park.

These sounds and sights quickly remind me why I became a parks and recreation professional over 30 years ago.  Though it’s easy to get overwhelmed with meetings, conversations over declining tax revenues, changes in liability laws, and the maintenance of buildings, equipment, and park facilities, at the end of the day parks and recreation is about people.  It’s about providing a safe and clean environment for friends and families to enjoy the outdoors and create experiences and memories that we hope they cherish forever.

Last month, the Freeport Park District completed the rebuild and installation of new playground equipment at one of Freeport’s oldest and smallest neighborhood parks—Knowlton Square Park.  The equipment that was replaced was the oldest we had still in use and was one of the last remaining that had yet to be replaced during my 16 yr. tenure with the park district.

Next month (weather permitting), we will start building ice at the Read Park Ice Skating Rink and cross our fingers that Mother Nature does her part to provide cold enough weather to sustain a smooth and hard surface for skating and outdoor hockey.

As I see it, these two seemingly different activities are linked in a very interesting way.  These two recreational venues are examples of how our park system serves an increasingly important need in our lives.

Our 11 neighborhood parks and playgrounds give us clean and safe places to play outdoors with our friends, children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.  Our bike and walking trails and paths give us miles to unwind, take deep breaths, and tune out the ever so chaotic world around us if we so chose. Our historic carousel, swan paddle boats, ice skating rink, skate park, swimming pool, tennis courts, golf and disc-golf courses, and baseball and softball fields allow for the creation of cherished memories spent with friends and families.  Life is really about a series of moments.

In our increasingly fast pace and overly connected world of social media and 24-hour news cycles, I believe more and more people need special places and spaces they can unplug into.  With our rolling hills, quiet country roads, 800 acres of parks, trails, nature, and warm hospitality, I believe Freeport is positioned to be such a place and that inspires me.

All In: The art of storytelling at Collaborate Freeport

By Jessica Modica, Executive Director of the Freeport Art Museum
November 21, 2017

It may be relatively easy to recognize a good story when we hear it, but crafting and telling one is a much more difficult proposition. A good story is one that draws us in, captivates and compels us to keep reading or listening right up to the very end. Why would this be important for a director of an art museum to know and understand? The answer is because, as people are changing the ways they connect and engage with the world, we understand this also applies to how people expect to interact with cultural organizations. We realize that museums need to create better, more inclusive forms of dialogue. In other words, we need to tell our story better.

As part of the Collaborate Freeport steering committee, I’ve begun to see how marketing professionals utilize storytelling as a powerful tool for communicating value, and I’ve come to appreciate how these tools can be applied in every business and organization. A great example of this can be seen in the testimonials the team gathered from people who represent a wide cross section of the community who shared the reasons they are “All-in” for Freeport. What was different and exciting about these stories was that we were able to gain insight about what makes Freeport unique from multiple perspectives.

As a result of seeing how well these messages worked, I set out on a mission to learn the art of storytelling and recently had an opportunity to attend a daylong workshop on the subject, which was part of the larger National Arts Marketing Project conference. One of first things I learned was that the best stories are ones that are told by individuals, not organizations.

At the beginning, we were given prompts that asked to share personal stories with our tablemates, complete strangers with whom we had just exchanged introductions. While at first it felt rather intimidating, by the end of the day we all walked away with a greater understanding of and appreciation for each other on a human level.

For the rest of the conference, when we passed each other on the way to and from sessions, we would greet each other warmly, often with a quick hug. If we, as marketers for our organizations, our businesses, and even our entire city, are able to tap into these kinds of connections, the story becomes much more authentic and compelling.

I learned that marketers refer to this as consumer-driven content and when employed well, it is worth more than all of our budgets combined. In the next several months Collaborate Freeport will be releasing a series of videos it’s been working to produce that convey this kind of individual connection to Freeport. These are some of our backstories; the narratives that draw people in and captivate our current and potential audiences. It’s also important for us to to realize that we are all contributors to telling the Freeport story and that we can each add our own chapters. I encourage people to share your content — upload your video, picture or anecdote that together creates the kind of story that is a real page-turner.

Jessica Modica, Freeport Art Museum executive director.

Lean in, roll up your sleeves and help make Freeport a destination

By Amy Fairweather
November 14, 2017

As I write this first column, I’m feeling heartfelt gratitude for the work Blake Musser has done in leading the Collaborate Freeport efforts over the past six months. Blake’s gift of strategy has helped position Collaborate Freeport and many other organizations to see things in a different light, become more flexible, and to consider embracing change.

Though Blake is moving on to accept a new challenge in our area, his efforts will have a long-term impact on how we move our community forward.

I believe small causes can lead to big impacts. I’m proud of what Collaborate Freeport has achieved so far and equally proud of where it’s headed. We haven’t been perfect and we’ve made mistakes along the way, but we’ve always known the intention and we’ve kept our vision.

When our grassroots effort began two years ago, our goal was to help stimulate interest in our community through elevated marketing and engaged storytelling. Our intention was to strengthen our marketing message to the outside world, build stronger community coalitions and collaborations, and help build a vibrant and more engaged community.

Our community today is going through monumental changes, and sometimes change is not easy. We are being asked to lean into each other in ways we haven’t before and to create new ways of delivering services to maximize impact and sustainability in the community. Results, outcomes and efficiencies have become more important than ever.

As I see it, our success in orchestrating a new model for delivering marketing and economic development services and building a stronger community depends heavily on the attitudes we each carry and the heart with which we approach change. Cooking with love has always provided much deeper nourishment than cooking without it.

Last week marked the end of our first year of launching a new brand and marketing effort for Freeport and Stephenson County. Freeport ALL IN and ALL IN Freeport serves as an invitation — to attract the attention of outside visitors — and it also serves as an internal call-to-action to motivate and influence a new kind of narrative. Our community’s new website — — is one of many new efforts that we have taken on.

We have many more initiatives we are working on and look forward to rolling out in the coming year and beyond. Though we hope you will stay tuned to watch the new and exciting changes taking place in our community, we really hope you will engage with us, roll up your sleeves, invest your time and resources in a project you are passionate about, and help us make Freeport and Stephenson County a destination in northwest Illinois.

Amy Fairweather is creative director of Collaborate Freeport. She can be reached at

A thriving community requires change and effort

By Blake Musser
November 11, 2017

Five years ago, I moved back to Freeport and the attitude here was generally that of doom and gloom. This attitude was so strong that we almost left in the first six months. We ended up staying, and I am so glad we did because we have been able to witness an incredible amount of change in a very short amount of time.

One of the reasons for this change is Collaborate Freeport. This movement formed to identify narratives about the special places, businesses, events, people and organizations that make Stephenson County a great place to explore, shop, work and live. The goal was to share these stories through compelling content. Two years later, our story is being told, and people are paying attention.

I believe that one of the reasons we are seeing this new energy and hope is that we have been willing to try something new. Our community recognized that if we wanted to thrive, we had to change. Even with this positive momentum, there are still many issues to address.

Not everyone is feeling this new hope, even though we are seeing new commercial construction, new outside investment and many growing businesses. Despite these positive advancements, there is a large portion of our population that needs to be better served.

Before everyone in our community feels this growth and prosperity, more work must be done. This will require many honest and hard conversations. It will require many of us getting out of our comfort zones and making decisions that are best for our community’s future.

I believe that one of these opportunities is making sure that similar community organizations examine their mission, vision and values and determine what is best for the community. Of course, this does not mean we forget the past, but instead, we use our history to inform our future.

I believe that Collaborate Freeport needs to lead by example. As we enter into year three, we need to ensure that we respond to our changing environment and transition to a model that is sustainable and beneficial for our community. This means finding the best fit for our brand and marketing efforts, and that we integrate into other organizations to maximize our limited resources.

To help get to the next phase, I have decided to make room. I am transitioning away from my hired position within Collaborate Freeport. My commitment to this movement has not changed, nor will my efforts and volunteerism in helping to build towards our future.

I am both excited to see the movement continue with its positive progress and I am looking forward to an exciting new career path, which will begin Nov. 13. This column will continue under the “All In” brand. Thank you to those of you who have read this column and support our community.

Blake Musser is the director of community marketing for Collaborate Freeport. He can be reached at

FHN Communi-sino goes All In

By Blake Musser
October 24, 2017

FHN is All In!

One of the premiere community fundraising events of the holiday season, FHN’s annual Festival of Trees Gala, has designated the All In campaign as this year’s community recipient.

Traditionally FHN has donated a percentage of the funds raised from their annual gala to support amazing not-for-profit community efforts, such as Friends Forever Humane Society, the Freeport Art Museum, and CareerTec. This year, FHN will continue this tradition by generously partnering with Collaborate Freeport to promote the All In mission of building a strong and healthy community, and creatively marketing the Freeport and northwest Illinois region.

Bringing together the themes of celebrating our community and Vegas-quality casino games, Communi-sino promises to be a night of fun. The evening will include a large hors d’oeuvres buffet featuring local culinary delights and delicious desserts, as well as local beer and wine tastings paired with specially selected snacks.

Guests can enjoy music while they bid on holiday silent auction items or enjoy the casino games from roulette to blackjack. No previous gambling experience — or real money! — is necessary.

“If you’ve never gambled before, that’s fine — the professional dealers at each table know the point of the evening is fun, so they help non-gamblers learn the games in a non-intimidating way and make it fun for everyone,” said FHN Foundation Executive Director Tonya Meyer.

To help highlight our community assets, an emphasis has been placed on using as many local vendors as possible. Guests will see this reflected in the food, beverage, entertainment and silent auction items that have been selected.


Mark the date on your calendar and buy your tickets. Better yet, do you know someone new to our area? Buy them a ticket and invite them to come with you to meet members of our community and experience some of the things our community has to offer.

Details for the event:

— The Communi-SINO Gala is open to the public and will feature casino-style games, food, music, entertainment and silent auction shopping from 7 to 11 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17, at The Wagner House, 1 E. Spring St., Freeport.

— Tickets are $50 each, and are available online through Friday, Nov. 10, at Reservations also may be made by calling toll-free at 877-600-0346, ext. 901 or by visiting M45 Marketing Services, Suite 100, 524 W. Stephenson St., Freeport.

To learn more about our community or other events please visit:

Blake Musser is the director of community marketing for Collaborate Freeport. He can be reached

October is manufacturing month

By Blake Musser
October 10, 2017

On Oct. 20, students from Dakota, Durand, Freeport, Lena, Orangeville, Pearl City and Pecatonica will have the opportunity to participate in a full day of activities to bring awareness to the opportunities in manufacturing in our area. This will be the fourth year of collaboration between CareerTec, the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center, Highland, NIDA and the local high schools to plan and host our own Manufacturing Day.

The day will be filled with tours, guest speakers, an expo and several other highlights. All activities are geared towards the students to help them understand the career opportunities in manufacturing, especially those here in our community.

We have a growing and thriving manufacturing sector in our community. The challenge that our businesses face is getting talented individuals to fill the positions they have available. Often, when we think of manufacturing, we think of how it was in the Industrial Revolution. However, that’s not what manufacturing is today. Now, manufacturing uses technology and robotics — it’s clean, safe and innovative. Having a Manufacturing Day is one of the tactics being used to help shed light on the many great manufacturing career opportunities.

While there is a lot of talk about manufacturing jobs moving overseas, many companies have stayed and will continue to stay in the U.S. There are several in our own community that are limited in their growth due to their lack of employees. Many manufacturing environments include highly trained well-paid employees who work on the state of the art equipment.

It is estimated that, nationally, there will be 2.5 million unfilled manufacturing jobs by 2025. This is a significant concern for our local and national economy. As I wrote about a few months ago, there are currently several hundred open positions in manufacturing in Stephenson County. The food-manufacturing job fair in August was very successful. Even though one in four of the candidates were offered jobs, there are still many positions available at those companies and at other manufacturers in our community.

For any student or parent of a student in our community’s high schools, I hope you take the opportunity to attend the Manufacturing Day. Manufacturing offers many diverse career opportunities. From production to product engineering and other supportive roles from communications to purchasing, there are countless career options across all levels of education.

For more information about our community, please visit:

Blake Musser is the director of community marketing for Collaborate Freeport. He can be reached at

All In: Destination Weekend proves to be great success

By Blake Musser
September 19, 2017

What an amazing weekend! As a community, we once again showed others and ourselves that we know how to put on some fantastic events.

Paint the Port, Tour de Freeport, Brewfest and Paddle the Pec were individually and collectively wonderful. All of the events this weekend were well-attended and the mood was positive and hopeful. Thank you to all of the organizations and people that helped pull this past weekend off. The hours of volunteerism and hard work are extremely appreciated.

I had the pleasure of attending all of the events. As I was passing out community-satisfaction surveys and making a point of talking with as many people as I could, two exciting themes emerged. The first was the large number of out-of-town visitors. I spoke to people visiting from Chicago, both the city and suburbs, Rockford, and the Wisconsin cities of Lake Geneva, Monroe and Madison.

Some were friends and family of community members, while others did not previously have a connection to Freeport. They simply heard about our events and wanted to see what was happening. These tourists were extremely complimentary to our community. Several noted that they were impressed with how we seem to be turning things around here. They all said that they are looking forward to having another reason to return.

The second theme was the number of people that are new to the area. Frankly, the large number of people I spoke with who had moved to our area within the last year surprised me. Each and every one of these new community members stated that they relocated here for career opportunities. The positions and organizations that attracted them were in both the private and public sectors.

The individuals varied from those who are early in their careers to those with significant work experience. Some were single and some were married. The best part of the conversation was when they repeatedly shared the reasons they decided to move here. They said it mattered to them that our community is working so hard to build a positive image. They want to be a part of the growth and the opportunities that are going to come.

Our community is going through changes and others are taking notice. Once again, thank you to all the volunteers and all of you who attended the weekend events. Please visit to find out more about this and other events in our community.

Blake Musser is the director of community marketing for Collaborate Freeport. He can be reached at

This year’s Cruise Night is coming Aug. 12

By Blake Musser
August 1, 2017

Hot rods, rat rods, street rods, muscle cars, antiques, coupes, convertibles, sedans, trucks and station wagons will all be in downtown Freeport on Aug. 12 for this year’s Cruise Night. Diverse car collectors from as many as five states will gather to display their special vehicle and gaze at everyone else’s. It is an experience you won’t want to miss.

In the 1950s and ’60s, as cars became more accessible and powerful, young people became mobile and they gathered downtown and hung out. Later in the night, the traffic lights at each intersection changed to flash. When this happened, cars no longer needed to stop, just briefly pause instead, and the cruising of the circuit began.

Cars would make endless trips throughout downtown from Stephenson to Locust, Locust to Main, Main to Liberty and back to Stephenson. If you have seen the movie “American Graffiti,” you know what I’m talking about.

Almost 40 years ago, a group of local car enthusiasts came together and created a car club called Freeport Street Machines. They would gather downtown to display their cars and hang out. What they didn’t know is that their efforts would create the single biggest event in Freeport attracting as many as 10,000 people on one evening — all to celebrate the car.

Expect to do some walking when you come down on Aug. 12 to Cruise Night. Make sure you bring your camera and lawn chair for the cruise. Cars will be on display in several lots throughout the downtown area including the main lot on Douglas Street, the lots on Stephenson Street, and at the Public Library.

The night begins at 4 p.m. with the opening of the food court so bring your appetite, too. The muffler rapping contest starts at 6 p.m. and burn-out contest is at 7 p.m. These contests are a must-see (and hear)! The cruising also starts at 7 p.m., heading east on Douglas, south on Adams, west on Main and north on Van Buren back to Douglas.

A huge thank you to Brian Borger who has helped with the event for years and helped co-author this week’s column. Also, a thank you to the Freeport Downtown Development Foundation who leads a committee that organizes the event recruiting over 70 volunteers, obtaining sponsors, applying for permits and scheduling the evening events in the yearlong planning process.

If you are interested in helping Cruise Night and would like to volunteer email or call 815-232-9000.

Food manufacturing job fair coming to Stephenson County

By Blake Musser
July 25, 2017

There is a major job fair next week in food manufacturing. Six of the food manufacturers in Stephenson County are looking to fill more than 250 open positions. The job fair will be held from 3 to 8 p.m. Aug. 2 and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Aug. 5 at the Freeport Public Library, 100 E. Douglas St.

Our community knows that one of our major economic bases is agriculture. What many may not realize is that we also have an extremely strong food manufacturing economy. Until being asked to help promote this job fair, I had no idea this industry was so strong or that it is growing this quickly. Their growth has been so great they are having a hard time filling all of their positions. Berner Food & Beverage, Snak King, Devansoy Inc, CoreFX, Nuestro Queso, Pearl Valley Farms and NIDA are coming together to hold a job fair to help fill these positions.

What I found interesting is how many of these companies produce for major private labels we use every day. I also was surprised at how large these organizations were, and that some of them are headquartered here in Stephenson County. Below is a brief company description and positions they are looking to fill.

Berner Food & Beverage is a leading private label supplier of quality food and beverage products to a majority of top retail chains. It employs more than 500 people and hopes to hire an additional 200.

Snak King is a snack food manufacturer that produces private label products. It employs 450 workers and wants to hire 25 to 30 entry-level packers, skid pullers, general utility laborers and sanitation technicians. It also needs skilled machine and forklift operators, and has one opening for an industrial electrician.

Devansoy Inc. manufactures soy- and plant-based proteins and ships bulk liquid products to packaging facilities throughout the U.S. for major and private label brands. It employs 24 workers and wants to fill six new positions in production and maintenance.

CoreFX is a custom dairy/specialty lipid ingredients manufacturer. It currently employs more than 45 employees and needs to fill nine open positions within production and maintenance.

Nuestro Queso is a specialty cheese manufacturer for Hispanic markets and produces private label products. It currently employs more than 95 people and needs to hire new employees in production, packaging, and maintenance.

Pearl Valley Farms is an egg ranch providing conventional, cage-free, organic and specialty shell, liquid, powdered and whole egg products, and it produces a specialty organic fertilizer. It produces more than two million eggs a day. It currently employs more than 200 people and looks to hire in production, processing, packaging, trucking and administrative departments.

One of the successes of Collaborate Freeport is more people and organizations are coming together in collaboration to tell their stories. Berner Food & Beverage saw the opportunity in collaborating on filling these positions by holding a joint job fair with other local food manufacturers. Thank you to these corporations for helping strengthen our economy and demonstrating an All-In approach.

Please help spread the word.

All In: Get ready for Freeport’s next destination weekend

By Blake Musser
July 18, 2017

I have found my pocket watch and dug out my knitting needles! This weekend will be the first of Collaborate Freeport’s destination weekends. It is clear to us that our community is hosting amazing events and attractions that already make us a destination. We are helping organizations with the promotion of these celebrations. All events have great backstories, excitement and the pull to bring in participants from outside our community.

One of our goals at Collaborate Freeport is to help improve tourism and economic development. When we invite people from outside communities to participate in these events, it illustrates to them that Freeport is a great place to visit and live. It also gives us the chance to have them spend the night in a hotel, eat at local establishments and shop at our great local businesses helping to strengthen our economy.

This Friday, Jeffrey Wall and Dennis Rinkenberger, also known as The Yarn Guys, will show our community’s value of giving back by sponsoring and hosting Freeport’s first Hope-A-Thon. The Halos of Hope-A-Thon participants knit hats for chemotherapy patients across the country. All donations from the event will go toward distributing hats to cancer treatment centers. This unique 24-hour event runs from 6 p.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Saturday and will be at the Wall of Yarn, 14 W. Stephenson St.

As part of the event, The Yarn Guys will also host the renowned author and knitting expert Franklin Habit, who will lead classes and give a lecture at The Wagner House. For more details, please visit their website. I look forward to supporting this cause and listening to Franklin Habit’s presentation.

The following night, Saturday, marks the return of prohibition. What started last year as an anniversary party for The Wagner House owners, Bill and Stacy Green, quickly grew into a large public event. It was such a hit, they brought it back for a second year and have made it even better!

I attended last year and the party was exciting, interesting and one of the most well-rounded events that I have attended. One of the best parts of this event is that it is interactive. You start in a speakeasy somewhere downtown Freeport, but you constantly need to be on the lookout for the cops and G-men trying to bust up a good party. The night wraps up at The Wagner House with music from The Gatsby Gang. The progressive party begins at 6:30 p.m., with early VIP access starting at 5 p.m.

Guests will receive a text with the first location about a half hour before the event begins. If you have not yet done so, purchase your tickets and 20s attire and prepare to dance the night away.

If these activities are not already in your calendar, please make sure you come out for a great night! Tickets for both Prohibition Freeport and The Gatsby Gang are available on the Wagner House website: For more information about Freeport’s Hope-A-Thon, visit

Going ‘All In’ on a reinvigorated Stephenson County Fair

By Blake Musser
July 11, 2017

The fair is back! When I was growing up, the Stephenson County fair was one of the things I looked forward to the most. It was always a time of great food, fun rides and reconnecting with friends and family.

Each year, my family would gather from all around the county for the fair. I spent hours, and even a few overnights, helping with the animals and enjoying the time I was able to spend with my family.

When my wife and I decided to move back to this community, the fair was a great representation of the charm of Stephenson County. It was the place where you could showcase the best of what you had, meet new and old friends and eat until you popped. A place where you could win a blue ribbon and then go to the grandstand for entertainment.

We were able to bring our kids out to the fair several times this year. Like many, we attended on Thursday for the $5 wristband night, and the kids had a blast getting to ride the kiddie rides. Each day we went, the fairgrounds felt full of people obviously having a good time.

As we walked around the fair, I had the opportunity to talk with many community members. Our conversations usually turned to All In and the work going on within the movement. Almost every person mentioned that they noticed a difference in our sense of community, both at the fair and in general.

As the saying goes, we vote with our feet. When we participate in community events, we give event organizers the financial and moral support to continue expanding, improving and innovating their event. I would encourage anyone wanting to be All In to show your support by attending local events and enjoying the things that Freeport and Stephenson County have to offer.

I would like to give a big thank you to this year’s fair board. An immense amount of hard work and long hours went into reinvigorating the fair. It is clear the attention placed on surveys and community feedback really paid off. From bringing in Gary Allen to making the fair more affordable, the adjustments made by the fair board were appreciated.

In addition, I personally know the return of the rodeo was applauded by my family members who traveled in for the fair. Congratulations on a great foundational year, and I look forward to watching the fair continue to grow in the years to come.

I am sure I can speak for the fair board by extending a BIG thank you to everyone who came out this year to the fair. I hope to see even more of you next year, and I look forward to running into you at many of the other exciting events coming up before then.

All In: Upcoming weekends in Freeport hold activities for tourists, locals

By Blake Musser
July 4, 2017

We sometimes believe we have to travel to see and experience something.

For several years prior to moving back home to Freeport, my wife and I lived in Washington, D.C. When we first moved there, we spent every spare moment exploring. As time passed, we were often amused (and a little embarrassed) that the only time we went out to the museums, memorials or the other culturally enriching events was when friends and family visited.

For us, the trick is to remember to participate. To jump in the car or simply walk down the block and just go. Adding children to our family (currently, we have two under the age of 4) has helped us experience our area with a fresh set of eyes.

We explored our history at the Stephenson County Historical Society’s Taylor Mansion, enjoyed an outdoor experience at Lake Le-Aqua-Na State Park and appreciated our community’s commitment to the arts at our amazing Freeport Art Museum. With or without kids, these stops and excursions have a lot to offer.

In each of the next three months, Collaborate Freeport has identified a local destination weekend: a weekend full of events and activities that are both great for bringing in tourists and exciting for locals. We have made it our mission to spread the word about these weekends and enable people to take advantage of the great happenings right here.

They include:

July 21-22: Halo’s of Hope Knit-a-Thon and Prohibition Freeport.

Aug. 12: Cruise Night.

Sept. 15-16: Paint the Port, Tour de Freeport, Brewfest and Paddle the Pec.

In addition to these destination weekends, local events and activities are being held all the time. This weekend, Freeport’s talented George Buss and Tim Connors will portray Lincoln and Douglas. At 1 p.m. Saturday at Debate Square (next to the Union Dairy) in Freeport, they will discuss unanswered questions that have remained hidden in history. Afterward, they will continue the conversation, in character, at The Wagner House.

Put these events on your calendar now, and let’s start seeing the amazing things right here in our backyard. I’ll be at each of these events. Stop me and say hello.

All In: Collaborate Freeport sees many who are ‘All In.’

By Blake Musser
June 27, 2017

As the new community marketing director for Collaborate Freeport, I have had the pleasure of meeting with many folks the past few months.

Last week, I spoke with two entrepreneurs who will be opening businesses in Freeport in 2017. Personally, nothing is more exciting to me than listening to someone who is knowledgeable and passionate talk about his or her dreams.

More people are talking about investing and are actually doing so than ever before. We have new leaders in both public and nonprofit organizations who are interested in moving our community forward. We have new businesses establishing themselves, old businesses moving back and several businesses that are expanding.

In short, Freeport’s moving from “Freeport good” to “Wow.”

As a Freeport native, I am very passionate about the city of Freeport and Stephenson County. I have been given the opportunity to contribute a weekly article to The Journal Standard regarding “All In” and the Collaborate Freeport movement.

We plan to use this space to talk about the organization and its direction, stories about people and organizations that are helping move our community forward and ways you can help make this community stronger. We still have plenty of issues to resolve, but I hope you join me in taking a moment to acknowledge that we are moving forward.

The Collaborate Freeport movement formed as a group of private citizens who wanted to celebrate the reasons to live, work and play in our community. They recognized that we do have challenges, but part of addressing challenges is reminding ourselves there is a reason we love living here. They saw the need to tell our story in a different way, both to ourselves and outside the community. They saw that we need to work together to brand and market the Freeport region to improve our economic development, enhance tourism and build a stronger sense of community in Stephenson County.

Recently, Collaborate Freeport launched “All In,” a brand for our community. Within the community, “Freeport. All In.” means working together toward the shared goal of creating a more vibrant, healthy and engaged community.

Outside the community, “All In Freeport” sends the message that Freeport has everything you need for a day trip, a weekend getaway or a new hometown, including affordable housing, great restaurants, beautiful parks, outdoor recreation, a distinctive history and one-of-a-kind events. Using this brand, we are telling our stories and reminding ourselves that we do have an amazing community.

As many joke, “I was ‘All In’ before it was cool.” It is true; there are many individuals and organizations that have been “All In” for many many years. Your efforts and kindness have given this community the ability to grow from here. Thank you to all of you.