Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey — part 20

I was so excited by the proposed Radisson Hotel project in the East Side Inn, I could barely breathe. Imagine, a 200-room hotel right across the street from the Old Rock River Café. It looked like my downtown pioneering was going to pay off. Hardly, as it turned out.

The East Side Inn is a Richardson Romanesque building. While not designed by Richardson himself, it was designed by one of his associates and is one of the few buildings still standing that bear his trademark. I lived across the street from it in the upstairs of what is now Runner’s Image. When you looked out the front windows it was as if you were in Georgetown.

A firm from either Madison or Milwaukee (I really don’t remember which) had purchased an option on the property from Zeda Ladd Brown (the owner) and was going to put in offices. They had a deal with the city to help them in their investment. However, more than a year had gone by, and nothing much had happened. The deal was actually in default. Then Bill and Sunil came along with their proposal. They would buy out the Rockford Furniture Mart, and keep only the front buildings for their old flavor. Everything else would be razed for the high-rise hotel. The thought of 200 rooms with a 65 percent occupancy right across the street meant that there would be 150 or more people looking for dinner every night.

Doug Logan had a deal cooking with Holiday Inn for a hotel on block 39. That’s the block where they built the State of Illinois or Zeke Giorgi Building. He wanted the downtown hotel there so it would complement the MetroCentre. But the president of the Radisson Corporation was quoted in the newspaper as only being interested in the East Side Inn location. That probably prompted some of what transpired. I think Doug was afraid that the proposed Radisson would screw up his Holiday Inn deal, which never materialized. Puri and Johannes were just looking for a little time to put their finances together. When it was presented to the City Council, the other firm stated that if they didn’t get their deal right now, they probably would back out totally and do nothing at all. The City Council capitulated, and the whole thing went down the toilet.

This was just plain bad business on the part of the City Council. Whenever in business someone gives you an ultimatum, the shrewd businessperson refuses. You never make a decision under duress. After the deal was in the toilet, Sunil sat next to me at the bar, drinking a beer (he drank beer in those days). He told me that it was a shame that the deal didn’t go through, but he was going to join the Council of 100 and that things were going to change. How prophetic. I heard that not long after the City Council turned them down, they got an enormous letter of credit from a major insurance company. Another chance for downtown development lost.

So the next time someone tells you that Sunil Puri isn’t interested in downtown, don’t you believe him or her. He came to us with gold on a plate, and we weren’t interested. Just another example of where the wrong decisions were made by people who were supposedly interested in rebuilding the River District.

Not too long after this, we blew another chance to have a downtown hotel. The Fridh Corporation wanted to build one on the property recently condemned by the city from Dr. Gautam Gupta. This one was turned down because the Fridhs had annexed some property they owned on the east side to the Village of Cherry Valley. The City Council cut off their nose to spite their face. I mean, really, what did one thing have to do with the other? And so the River District goes on without the hotel it so severely needs and so justly deserves. Maybe things will be different under a Larry Morrissey administration.

More next week

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the July 27-Aug. 2, 2005, issue

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