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Business First program helps 14 Rockford businesses open in 2019

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ROCKFORD (WREX) — The stateline area is built on small and local business.

Particularly in Rockford.

One trip downtown shows a strong foundation of shops, boutiques and restaurants unique to the Forest City.

6 Finger Tattoo is one of the newest additions to Rockford's small business scene.

The tattoo shop opened downtown in November, becoming the first woman owned tattoo parlor in the city's history.

A title that resonates with the shops owner, Sarah Stewart.

"It's been a really surreal, inspirational thing. Having a shop in general, but having that title is pretty empowering," Stewart said.

While Stewart is excited to have her business up and running, the road to get there seemed like a long and difficult one.

"You make a list of things you need to do and then your list in three pages long. It can be overwhelming," Stewart said.

"Instead of figuring it out as you go, you are immediately presented with all of the departments you need to be in contact with. It really helps you clarify what you need to do."

However, she found a route to go down to help her with the laundry list of tasks.

Rockford's Business First Program.

The program began in 2015 through the city's Doing Business Task Force.

It was a task force created by the mayor to find ways to improve the process of doing business in our community," City of Rockford Economic Development & Diversity Procurement Coordinator Matt Simpson said.

The program is a collaboration between the city's zoning and code enforcement team, water reclamation district and health department to create a more direct approach for entrepreneurs to get the information they need.

"In our community, we have a lot of people with talent and energy that just need the right connections and right information," Simpson said.

2019 was aptly a busy year for the Business First program.

It helped 14 businesses open their doors in Rockford, including Tacos El Toro and Who's Next Salon on Auburn Street and Gene's Irish Pub in the Midtown District.

The newest product of the program is Memi's Beauty Supply which was started by a couple from Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"It was hectic because you don't know where to start, as an immigrant as a refugee in a new country and you need all of this information. Working with them, it was so easy," Memi's co-owner Furaha Rulinda said.

"I am so excited to now have a full image of the business I wanted to have."

Regardless of where they call home, whether its Rockford or a different country, the Business First program is helping people join a community built on local business

"84% of our appointments this year have been women and minorities. It's beautiful to see those statistics happening here at the ground level," Simpson said.

"These are the people with the ideas and energy that are taking a risk and we're doing what we can to support these businesses to get opened up."

70 appointments were made through the Business First program this year.

The city is still in contact with 40 of those appointments to provide and help they need.

Evan Leake

Evan Leake anchors for 13 News Today and 13 News at Noon. Evan grew up in Darien, Illinois, a south-west suburb of Chicago. He came to WREX in 2017 and worked his way to the anchor desk in May of 2019. He coordinates both the Teacher of the Week and Inspiring 815 series for 13 News. You can connect with Evan at or Evan Leake on Facebook.

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