Downtown strip feels economic boom

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116302651228138.jpg’, ‘Photo by Kathryn R. Martin’, ‘Cru is not a typical eatery. “This is really two-headed,” said Damien Hunter. “It’s a retail wine and imported cheese shop, as well as a restaurant. To us, Cru is Brio’s little brother.”’);

Ten years ago, it was safe to say that downtown Rockford was beginning to look like the ghost town that the Brady Bunch stumbled upon on its way to the Grand Canyon. Except for a few mainstays that shared the same vision, many believed downtown Rockford was a taboo area for economic development.

The Irish Rose, CJ’s, Capri and Deb’s Little Italy, among others, continued to call the River District home, while many developers and those jumping on the chain restaurant and mega-trend retailer bandwagons moved East.

Things have certainly changed. Rockford’s downtown is beginning to shine like the beacon it once was. Restaurants are open. Salons and galleries are thriving. There is now no reason to stay away from downtown Rockford. In fact, many residents feel the best restaurants, entertainment venues and specialty shops in the city are now in the center of the Forest City.

Helene Smithson of Rockford said she feels growth is moving in the right direction.

“I lived away from Rockford for quite some time,” Smithson said. “When I left, the east side was the booming [area] and nothing was going on downtown. It’s great to see that, not only are there new businesses moving in down here, but the city’s art, history and architecture is being preserved at the same time.”

During his campaign, Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) promised voters that he would concentrate diligently on the encouragement of downtown development. Some say he’s been a bit slow with his efforts. However, judging by recent growth, he’s more than making good on his word.

This year has seen a host of new downtown ventures. With the addition of Kuma’s Asian Bistro and Fuzion Studios, the wave has continued with even more positive change.

Cru, owned by Paul Sletten, who also owns Brio Restaurant, Wine Bar and Patio, is now open at 509 E. State St. Although an offshoot of Brio, Cru has taken on its own identity. According to manager Damien Hunter, Cru is not a typical eatery.

“This is really two-headed,” Hunter said. “It’s a retail wine and imported cheese shop, as well as a restaurant. To us, Cru is Brio’s little brother.”

Sletten and Hunter are quite serious about their wines. More than 700 varieties were tasted to come up with the extensive line, ranging in price from $9 to $110 a bottle, some of which are exclusive to Cru.

“We have a very broad selection,” Hunter said. “Some of them you can’t get anywhere else. And to take the guessing game out of selecting wines to go with certain foods, our staff is very knowledgeable and can pretty much knows what goes with what.”

Cru is equally serious about its food. The menu is simple, yet elegant, with a vast array of entrees. From its Louissianna Pork Poor Boy to its signature Cru Salad, every selection is as well prepared as it can be.

Across the street from Sletten’s latest venture, Zambuca Coffeehouse and Piano Bar is also open in its first phase. Owner Peter Andreakos lives in Janesville, Wis., and was immediately prompted to utilize the Rock River.

Andreakos said: “When I first came to Rockford, the first thing I noticed was that there is a beautiful river running right through the city. It’s not yet being fully taken advantage of, but it’s happening. With that, and the 1800s city feel, Rockford’s downtown is the perfect place to be.”

At 514 E. State St., Zambuca is serving specialty coffees. Andreakos said he and his staff are working hard to work in a full lunch, dinner and bar menu, and a regular entertainment schedule.

“Our idea is to be upscale, but affordable,” Andreakos said.

The opening of Cru and Zambuca, which are both non-smoking restaurants, now means that Block 5 is full.

As busy as Block 5, the 200 block of the East State corridor is also getting a new look. River City Development Group is in the process of increasing the area’s housing opportunities. Formerly Rockford Furniture, the building will soon consist of 17 condominiums, ranging from 850 to 2,200 square feet.

According to Christopher Furney, who has recently moved to Rockford and calls Haight Village home, his company wants to attract a diverse economic base of new homeowners.

“The plan is to have our units range from $95,000 to $250,000 to cover a broad range of people,” Furney said.

Furney also noted that he’s interested in piquing the interests of other developers by making downtown a suitable area to build.

“My company’s attitude is simple, and that is to create for Rockford a sustainable interest in downtown,” Furney added.

Also with a non-smoking policy, Carlyle Brewing Co., 215 E. State St., is also expanding and has grown into the space at 217 E. State St., formerly the location of Ken’s Hideway. Ken’s, a longtime strip club, shut its doors for good this year, following an unsuccessful attempt to remain open.

Next to Carlyle, Chocolat by Daniel will also open soon. The restaurant, which will specialize in desserts, coffee and chocolate fondue, has moved into the old Sal’s Diner location. Sal’s recently closed and joined forces with Paragon On State, which also continues to be a popular downtown eatery.

The recent East State Street boom follows a string of restaurants, bars and other organizations that have enjoyed success downtown. Krypto Music Lounge celebrated its five-year anniversary this year. The club has operated at the same Stewart Square location since 2001. As with the taverns and restaurants, the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and the Rockford Park District are also located in the River District.

From the Nov.8-14, 2006, issue

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