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Women's History Month: Paula Olson - A Beacon of Resilience and Empowerment in the Miracle Mile District

In celebration of Women's History Month, we pay tribute to the extraordinary women whose perseverance and leadership have reshaped the Rockford community and ignited progress. Among these remarkable individuals stands Paula Olson, a beacon of resilience and empowerment in the Miracle Mile district, whose story encapsulates the spirit of determination and collaboration.



Reflecting on her journey, Paula recounts the humble beginnings of her endeavor. 


"We started meeting in 2005 as just a grassroots group of business owners trying to figure out what to do with the empty Magna grocery store building,” says Paula. "We became incorporated in 2007 [and] realized rapidly that it would be very difficult to try to fill that building.”


Amidst economic challenges, including the recession of 2008, Paula and her fellow board members persevered, striving to uplift their neighborhood. By 2016, Paula retired from a decades-long career in banking. She also felt it was time to move on from her role as Treasurer/Secretary of Miracle Mile. But, she remained involved with the group. 


“I feel like Rockford is such a great place and it gets such a bad rap. I don’t understand it because I love it here. Every city has their issues, but it is what you make it.


Just a short time later, the opportunity to make her mark on the group and the city she calls home presented itself.


“Our executive director left and we were having trouble finding a replacement for her. That’s when I thought I would just do this for a year or two. Now, it's been eight.” 


It’s a feat she humbly recognizes.


“I never expected to be a leader of a group. I am a relatively shy person… speaking on TV was a big deal for me. But, knowing that I had to shine the light on all these small businesses that needed it… help me overcome some of my shyness issues.”


Despite some personal doubts and moments of uncertainty in the beginning, Paula's resilience and determination never wavered. With the support of her fellow board members and community partners, she spearheaded initiatives to promote local businesses and foster economic growth. 

Under her watch, the Miracle Mile finally rid itself of the abandoned Magna grocery store in 2020 after the city demolished it. 


“{It} has been a blessing.”


In the years since, the lot has served as a festival grounds. Don Carter Lanes, a member of the Miracle Mile, hosts its Rock-N-Bowl Car Show there. It also served as a pop-up drive-in movie theatre this past summer. Paula also spearheaded the group’s efforts to literally pick up the trash in the neighborhood. The Miracle Mile has partnered with Keep Northern Illinois Beautiful to host a volunteer-driven cleanup effort for the last 20 years.


“It’s kind of an icky job. It’s necessary… saving Mother Earth, that’s always important to me… recycling… minimal use of things.”


Through her advocacy and dedication, she has empowered female entrepreneurs to thrive in a competitive business landscape. 


"One of my favorite stories is the strip mall behind Taco Bell. It was so run down. We had out-of-town owners. They weren’t taking care of the building. The city ended up condemning the building and we had one business left that was hanging in there, owned by a Korean immigrant. She made it work, even [with] no running water. But, my success story was helping her relocate, staying in our footprint with an affordable location and it has improved her livelihood.” 


For women looking to make their mark in the real world, Paula shares this piece of advice: “I would tell other women to not be intimidated, to be yourself and to just do what you feel is right. Do things with kindness and always trying to help people, that you’ll always shine and you’ll come out on top.”

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