Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey—part 17

When we all came downtown, it was about lifestyle. It wasn’t about getting rich. I had seen the changes in downtown Sacramento and in downtown Indianapolis. I wanted to try to help create that type of thing in Rockford, but there were things working against us.

As I stated earlier, when I first came downtown, there was a new crew at the Register Star that enjoyed and supported the downtown. They came from other places and were used to an urban environment. They hung out in the area and in their articles and pictures presented it in a positive light. This was part of the reason we had standing lines at lunch. But soon they all got successful and moved elsewhere. Their replacements were different. They lived in the suburbs and only came down here to work.

The other reason we did so well was much of Rockford was starved for something different. That was why others gravitated to us. That was why other business sprung up around us. We had the trendy thing all to ourselves when it came to restaurants. Soon there was a running shoe store and a unique loft living area, 317 Market St. It really looked like we were on our way. I remember the day Deb Newton told me she wanted to be near what we were doing.

When we first opened, as I have said before, there was only a handful of businesses open from Third Street to the river. The first Rockford CDC, under the direction of Dick Brynteson, changed all of that. They bought up all the vacant properties and renovated them for new owners. This was one of the first and most successful CDCs in the nation. But for all the good it did, there were still strong forces working against it.

Rockford College had moved to the suburbs. I don’t know (and I don’t want to know, really) who was responsible for this stupid scheme. I imagine if you follow the money trail, there was a huge pot of gold for someone. They abandoned a beautiful downtown campus for a plot of land out on the east side and replaced it with public housing. I’m sure it all looked good on paper, but it set the downtown area back immeasurably. It also almost bankrupted the college. It didn’t really serve the needs of the students, either. They could no longer walk to restaurants and bars. They could no longer sit by the river. If anyone wants to know how it could have been, simply drive up to Beloit and look at a campus that didn’t ignore its roots.

Secondly, the city threw away a chance to have NIU downtown. The old Rockford Dry Goods store was the university’s site of choice. They had a fund to start the process, I think it was $100,000. But the forces in City Hall and in the Metro Authority had other plans. They wanted to build a restaurant for Tony Salamone, the owner of the Mayflower in Loves Park. They believed this would inspire downtown growth. They tore the Dry Goods building down to build a parking deck that also contained a restaurant space. So we didn’t get a branch of NIU downtown. Can you imagine what downtown would be like today if the two colleges were here? I can.

When the restaurant idea was floated, I held a press conference at the Old Rock River Café to oppose it. We, as other restaurateurs and bar owners, were afraid of what 275 seats of subsidized capacity would do to the business climate. I asked Doug Logan publicly to do a study of how it would affect the other businesses before he embarked on the process. He answered that he would. Later that evening, he told a reporter that the only study would be 14 votes on Monday night.

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 June 29-July 5, 2005, issue

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