Rebecca and Justin Francis, center, pose for a photo with local dignitaries and representatives from ASM Global and Soar Radio on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, at the Coronado Performing Arts Center, 314 N. Main St., Rockford. The Soar Awards will be held Monday, March 6, 2023, at the Coronado. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)
By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — Justin and Rebecca Francis faced pressure to move their annual award show highlighting gospel music’s biggest artists to Chicago.

The show was growing, and the nationally touring performers who take the stage for what is gospel’s second-largest award show saw the benefits of celebrating in the Second City.

But the Rockford natives decided to stick with their hometown, and in March the Soar Awards will return to the Coronado Performing Arts Center for the second time in its six years.

“I love this city,” said Justin Francis, the founder and CEO of Soar Radio, an online station based in Rockford that puts on the event. “Downtown Rockford is growing. It’s a beautiful theater. It’s made for this.”

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Soar Radio, which is a Stellar Gospel Music award-winning online radio station, announced on Wednesday that the show would be recorded at the Coronado on March 6.

The event started in 2016 at the Tebala Event Center. This will mark the second time it has been held at the Coronado. It’s also been held at Forest City Church.

“Even most of the national artists that come say the Coronado is the best theater,” Rebecca Francis said. “If people do come from out of town they get to see this beautiful setting that we have right here in Rockford, which is a treasure: the Coronado.”

Rebecca Francis
Rebecca Francis of Soar Assembly Church talks Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, about the upcoming Soar Awards to be held March 6 at the Coronado Performing Arts Center in Rockford. This is the sixth year of the Soar Awards, which recognizes gospel music’s biggest names. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

The program, which is recorded for television broadcast at a later date, will be hosted by multi-award-winning musicians Todd Dulaney and Isabel Davis.

The evening will honor Donald Lawrence, who is one of the most celebrated names in gospel music with 15 Grammy nominations and a win for producing in the best traditional gospel album category. It will also recognize singers Kierra Sheard Kelly and Jekalyn Carr, who have both produced No. 1 hits in the genre. There will be performances from The Clark Sisters, KeKe Wyatt, Leandria Johnson and others.

“I don’t know if our community really understands the magnitude and how fortunate we are to have the Soar Awards right here in Rockford,” Mayor Tom McNamara said.

He joked that the only downside was that it was on Monday night, when City Council meetings are typically held.

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The event is estimated to spur $215,000 in economic activity.

“You’re going to see an entire full downtown,” McNamara said. “That means people shopping in retail shops, that means people going out for a bite to eat before and after the awards. That’s an incredible impact.”

Rebecca Francis said she hopes the event will sell out the roughly 2,300 seats in the arena.

“One thing that we love to be able to do when visitors come into our community is show them the best of our community,” said John Groh, president and CEO of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “This beautiful facility, built in 1927 and restored in 2000, showcases what our community is capable of both when we pull together to save historic treasures and even the ingenuity of those who came before us, too.”

Justin Djuane Francis, the founder and CEO of Soar Radio, takes questions from reporters on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, after announcing the annual Soar Awards would return to the Coronado Performing Arts Center in March. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

The event has grown from an endeavor put on largely by Justin and Rebecca Francis to a wide-ranging collaboration that includes sponsorship from Hard Rock Casino Rockford, Compassion International, IBEW 364, the city of Rockford government, the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, Midland States Bank, Wintrust Bank and the Rockford IceHogs.

“To have so many people believe in it from the community, we’re so appreciative,” Justin Francis said. “It shows that people believe in what we have.”

The event has featured major stars in the past such as Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson, gospel stars Mary Mary and Rockford native Michelle Williams, who garnered national fame as a member of Destiny’s Child. It’s also had video tributes submitted by Beyonce and others.

The event, the organizers say, is not just for gospel music fans or Christians. It’s for music lovers of all kinds. It will be accessible and inclusive for all, they said.

“It’s truly for everyone. It’s music about love. It’s music about encouragement,” Justin Francis said. “We welcome anybody from all walks of life to come and enjoy music. If you like music, this is the event for you.”

Know before you go | Soar Awards

Letters on the marquee are changed on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, at the Coronado Performing Arts Center in Rockford. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

When: 7 p.m. Monday, March 6

Where: Coronado Performing Arts Center, 314 N. Main St., Rockford

Admission: Tickets start at $42


This article is by Kevin Haas. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @KevinMHaas or Instagram @thekevinhaas.

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