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Blake Musser, Director of Community Marketing, shares his weekly article in the Journal Standard about the exciting things he sees happening for Freeport and All In.


A thriving community requires change and effort

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 business. 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 blake@collaboratefreeport.com.


FHN Communi-sino goes All In

By Blake Musser
Oct 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 fhn.org/festivaloftrees/communisino.asp. 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: freeport-all-in.com.

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


October is manufacturing month

By Blake Musser
Oct 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: freeport-all-in.com.

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


All In: Destination Weekend proves to be great success

By Blake Musser
Sept 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 change and others are taking notice. Once again, thank you to all the volunteers and all of you who attended the weekend events. Please visit freeport-all-in.com 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 blake@collaboratefreeport.com.


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 office@96f.705.myftpupload.comdowntown.com 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: wagnerhouseil.com. For more information about Freeport’s Hope-A-Thon, visit halosofhope-a-thon.org.


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.