Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey—part 12

The Old Rock River Café and Deli LTD was a wonderful place. I had first spied it from State Street and jumped right out of my car to look in the windows. It had originally been put together by some consulting firm for the Woodstock General Corporation. It had a lot of old musical instruments suspended form the ceiling and two beautiful neon signs. One was from the Navy Club that had been next door, and one was from the former Head Pin Lounge (home of the original Irish Rose). When they tore down the Flamingo restaurant across the street, I managed to salvage that wonderful neon, but I never got around to hanging it with the others.

The bar was 30 feet long of green Italian marble. It was a Bastian Blessing soda fountain left over from the first tenant, a drug store. The bar floor was inlaid tile in an antique pattern. The place was a picture of the restaurant of my imagination, and most importantly, it was downtown. I had seen the revival efforts in Old Sacramento and Indianapolis, and I wanted to be part of something like that here in Rockford. I figured it would take about five years. And I was almost right.

I met with people from the bank, and with their help, I was able to put together the start-up capital. This was where the community development corporations were so successful, bringing capital to down-and-out sections of the community. What these organizations proved was that the old inner cities were viable, if you provided capital. The First Rockford Community Development Corporation was one of the first of these efforts in the nation and one of the most successful.

(From Third Street to the river, there were only about half a dozen buildings in use before the CDC. After its implementation, almost all the buildings filled with tenants, most of which remain to this day. This brings me to a point I have been trying to make for a long time. Downtown does not need to be “redeveloped.” It has already been redeveloped. That ship has sailed. The downtown area is more than 85 percent rented out. That is a higher rate than any mall in the area. There is more open stock on the east side (percentage wise) than there is downtown.

This idiocy of talking about the need to redevelop downtown just holds back our further development. Most of this nonsense is spread by people who never come downtown and don’t know anything about it. It is also spread by politicians and newspaper reporters who come down here to work but then can’t wait to get back to their east-side tract palaces. I personally am getting really sick of it. When you state that something needs redevelopment, you are saying stay away until we redevelop. What we should be talking about is building on the success of the last 25 years. The goofballs who live on the east side and get all their information from the stupid Rockford newspaper will never come down here until we fix this major misperception. I am beginning to wonder if that will ever happen.

In addition, look at the number of restaurant closings this year on the east side of Rockford. Café Patou, The River Boat, Bogart’s, the list is endless. Downtown has only gotten stronger. It is a neighborhood, a community and an entertainment destination. We are adding new restaurants and businesses every day. Pretty much (with only a few exceptions) every restaurant worth eating at is in the older segment of our community. (I am waiting for the silly daily to do the story “Another east side restaurant closes,” but don’t hold your breath. It doesn’t fit in with their pre-ordained view of the world.)

I made another trip here from New York. I obtained the startup capital from First National Bank. I was ready to be in the restaurant business. I went back to New York to give notice to the Coca-Cola company. I sat in my boss’s office and told him. He seemed almost jealous. Then I went back to my office, where I got a phone call. It was Angelo Bruscato, the attorney. I had engaged him to help me with the corporation start up. “Don’t quit your job,” he said, “The liquor license is all screwed up. We won’t be able to transfer it.” “Too late,” I replied, “We’ll just have to work things out.”

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, and featured on WNTA talk radio AM 1330. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the May 18-24, 2005, issue

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