Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

The email began, "Arnie, I'm sure that by trashing Rockford, you added a little zest to your article."

I winced. The writer was reacting to a column I had written in May about my interview with film director Francis Ford Coppola, who not only makes films and wine but owns Family Coppola Hideaways, six hotels in the Americas and one in Italy.

During that interview, I had asked where his next property would be located.

"Oh, it's so bizarre, I don't know that I could tell you," he said.

"Tell me."

"Rockford, Illinois."

He went on to explain that Rockford was "the cradle of baseball," and in particular, women's baseball. The story of its World War II-era team, the Rockford Peaches, was dramatized in the film "A League of Their Own."

Having been to Rockford -- albeit decades ago -- I thought that if Coppola were seriously considering opening a hotel there, its chances for success would be mighty slim. I described Rockford as "a perfect example of a Rust Belt city in decline" and noted that in 2013, it ranked third on Forbes' list of "America's Most Miserable Cities."

Although I acknowledged that my hometown, Chicago, was fourth on that list, the criticism bothered John Lanpher, a Rockford lawyer, who wrote the email to me. He detailed some positive attributes of the city and ended with an invitation to visit.

"First drink's on me," he wrote.

I later received emails asking about the Coppola interview from a Rockford television station and from Adam Poulisse, a staff writer with the Rockford Register Star. In his subsequent story, Poulisse wrote, "People across the city have emailed me, asking if I've seen the Travel Weekly article. I have; we all have."

He reported there had been Coppola sightings in the city, and he heard the director had bought a home there. He found additional clues pointing to Coppola's strong interest in Rockford, but ultimately his research was inconclusive.

A few days after the article appeared, John Groh, CEO of the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, reached out to me. "I've never had an article tweeted at me or tagged to me on Facebook more than your article," he said.

He confirmed that Coppola had purchased the town's minor league baseball stadium. Public records show he also bought two adjacent parking lots.

And Groh issued an invitation of his own, saying that Stroll on State, a kickoff to the holiday season, would be held the Saturday after Thanksgiving and would be a perfect time for me to see Rockford at its best.

And so it was that I found myself in Rockford the weekend before last, watching its holiday parade, exploring its shops, talking with locals. Almost everyone had heard about Coppola's interest in the town, and most believed they knew the very house he's said to have purchased.

Although the route I had taken into town passed shuttered factories and quite a few for lease/for sale/space available signs, the town center was alive with interesting shops, restaurants, pubs and rooftop bars, many featuring drinks produced by one of the town's 14 microbreweries, a whiskey distillery or a coffee roaster.

Large downtown buildings had been converted to lofts. The chef from a Peruvian restaurant set to open later this month was handing out coffee and hot chocolate next to a Japanese restaurant featuring sushi, sake and ramen.

The eight-story, art deco Rockford Register Star Building anchored one end of a bridge over the Rock River, and it is an architectural gem.

I would have been happy to linger longer at a few spots, but I had an appointment to keep. I had let Lanpher, my email critic, know that I was coming to town and was ready to accept the drink as well as any additional criticism he had to offer.

Economic development consultant Stacy Bernardi accompanied him, and over drinks and appetizers, they told me about Rockford's recovery as well as its highly regarded Japanese garden, its conservatory and its Frank Lloyd Wright house.

They said Golf Magazine found Rockford to have the "best affordable" courses, and they told me about dinosaurs and bugs in the town's Burpee Museum of Natural History. I learned about the Chicago Blackhawks' minor league franchise, the IceHogs.

Perhaps the most significant confirmation of Rockford's upward trajectory came from Groh, speaking of growth and investment in Rockford hotels.

"I'm 41, and for most of my life, there hasn't been a hotel [in downtown Rockford]  your readers would want to stay in," he said.

But newer properties have spurred a 16% rise in occupancy, and investors are putting up $85 million to convert an existing building into a 160-room Embassy Suites and conference center.

"If Mr. Coppola opens a hotel, we'll help him fill it," he said.

Rockford, I apologize. I was afraid that excitement over a potential Coppola hotel would end like the movie "Big Night," in which a pair of restaurant owners bankrupt themselves preparing a lavish dinner for Louis Prima, who never shows.

But now I'm looking forward to a possible hotel opening. Like the "Godfather" series, I'd like to end this as a trilogy, writing "Francis Ford Coppola, hotelier -- Part 3" as a review from a room in his Rockford Family Coppola Hideaway.


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