County backpedals on jail plan

n E-mail to Winnebago County Board members shows county’s intent to acquire St. Mary’s Church property

Winnebago County officials, stung by public backlash over their plans to buy the St. Mary’s Oratory property and demolish the church building to make way for the new county jail, have denied having any such intent.

On Sept. 3 they issued a news release stating: “Chairman Kris Cohn, State’s Atty. Paul Logli and Sheriff Richard Meyers today reasserted their position that the administration of Winnebago County has no plans to buy and/or destroy St. Mary’s Church or Allen Chapel.”

Instead, the new jail may be located on land owned by a limited liability company, whose owner died several years ago, according to Sylvia Pagel, local historic preservation activist. Two properties owned by Andrews 1907 LLC—one 33.71 acres, the other 13.94 acres—may be the site for the new jail, Pagel said.

The property is bounded by West State Street on the south, Springfield Avenue on the west, Pierpont Avenue on the east and School Street on the north. The land was owned by developer Clayton Andrews, who died several years ago. Reportedly, the estate is still in probate court.

On Aug. 29 at 9:50 a.m., Rick Pollack, chairman of the Public Safety Committee of the county board, wrote an e-mail to Salley Claassen, the county’s purchasing and risk management director. The e-mail was forwarded to Kris Cohn’s secretary, Serina Cardenas, and then forwarded to all county board members.

That message said: “Here is my plan regarding St. Mary’s Church: Please have a resolution written to enlarge the land acquisition area (include the church property) for appraisal and potential purchase.

“At our meeting on 9/3 we will vote on the resolution and bring it in to the full county board 9/4. I hope to have a representative from the diocese and Paul Logli to be present for moral support. I don’t want a media circus on this, so I will talk to our board members. Tim Simms will check support for this at our caucus next week. What I need from you is a resolution to enlarge the land acquisition area and have it put on the agenda for 9/3.”

When the agenda for the Sept. 3 committee meeting appeared, it included an item that read: “Resolution to explore the option to purchase St. Mary’s property.”

County board member Mary Ann Aiello discovered that entry and raised the alarm, alerting the media.

The next day, a new copy of the committee agenda was produced. The agenda now read “Resolution to explore the options to expand the land acquisition area for the Criminal Justice Center.” No mention of the church property.

Public outrage was immediate and has not yet fully subsided.

No officials of the Rockford Diocese or the county government were available for comment when the plan was discovered.

Also, on Sept. 3, the Winnebago County Public Safety Committee approved a new resolution that stated that St. Mary’s and Allen Chapel AME Church would not be targets for demolition to make way for the new jail.

The county’s news release now says construction of the new jail and sheriff’s headquarters will not require buying either St. Mary’s or Allen Chapel. Officials said the only church-owned land that could be affected would be that lying along an alley next to the former grade school.

Cohn, Logli and Meyers declared in a Sept. 3 press release: “The county, its architects and contractors will take whatever steps are necessary to preserve and protect both church structures for the lasting use and enjoyment of their members.”

The entire incident prompted some county board members to reopen discussion of the best possible siting of the new jail. Some question whether the downtown location of the facility would help or hinder development, and whether or not it would be cheaper to acquire land at another place.

The Rockford Register Star reported Majority Leader Tim Simms (R-14) is against Jim Hughes’ (D-11) idea for moving the site.

Jeff Havens contributed to this article.

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