Hanging out in Rockford: Sometimes you just have to say something

I was at the state’s attorney’s office collecting a bad check when I first met Dr. Gautam Gupta. He was there for a similar reason—someone had stolen his Dictaphone recorder and it had been found. We talked for a while, and he came by my restaurant. That was the beginning of a long friendship and business relationship.

I can’t remember where I first met Dave Casazza. I know it was intertwined with knowing Ken Ahlstrand, the former president of Life Savings and Loan. Ken was one of the most ordinary people I ever met. I say that with the utmost respect. The first time all of us got together was definitely when Dr. Gupta and I talked to them in Ken’s office in the Rockford Trust Building. We were considering putting a restaurant in the top floor of the Talcott Building. Nothing came of that meeting.

When I was forced to leave the State and Madison Building (my Old Rock River Cafe Chapter 11 reorganization), Dave and Ken bought the building. They poured over a million dollars into it. It is now the home of a prestigious law firm and Bacon’s clipping service. They restored the windows on the backside of the second floor. I used to stand out there and dream of doing that someday, I never had the money.

I had a pending violation of the liquor ordinance; the city had sent an underage couple into one of the many bars we ran in the State and Madison building, the one we call pockets. One of my bartenders who had not been working for us very long was rushed and didn’t card them. I was facing a week’s closure. The city said I couldn’t move to my new location until I took my punishment. Ken and Dave extended my stay in the Old Irish Rose until I could. I remember Ken standing behind Dave on the telephone telling him, “Tell them Mike has a lease here for as long as it takes.” Later, Ken confided in me that he had been “spanked” for helping me.

My friend Gautam bought the building that is now the Irish Rose. He gave me $20,000 toward the renovation, and collected no rent for many months while I got the whole thing off the ground. I would never have been able to stay downtown without his help. Later, I was able to repay them all somewhat by tipping Dr. Gupta off on the pending auction of the Rockford Trust Building. I had learned about it from my friend Ken Ritz. I got them all together. They bought it as partners.

Collectively, they have been the biggest developers of downtown property in the last 20 years. Among the properties they have developed or are developing are the aforementioned Talcott Building; the Rockford Trust Building; the Janet Wattles Building; the State and Madison Building; the Irish Rose Building; the building that used to house the Artery; the building that houses The Rock River Times and Parthenios; the old Rockford Watch factory and others. All of these accomplishments have been done without a cent of public money.

The day I opened the Irish Rose in its present location, I didn’t have tables and chairs. We were going to have to open as a stand up bar. Frank Schier got in his van and went down to my old place. Dave and Ken lent me the tables and chairs out of the State and Madison Building so I could open. Some things you just don’t forget.

That is why it is especially hard for me to accept what is happening to them now. The city has indicated it is going to take the property owned by Dr Gupta across the street from the Winnebago County Courthouse. They are going to pay him less than $150,000 for this property. I actually heard a city employee refer to them as slumlords. (I spoke up very loudly. I would hardly consider the Trust or Talcott buildings to be slums.) The city has no plans for the property, or so they say.

Dave Casazza has shown further support for downtown by moving down here. He is crafting a wonderful apartment in the top floor of the Talcott, the space that used to house Thirteen’s. Dr. Gupta’s girlfriend Monika, has opened a charming coffee shop called Pravda in the lobby of the Trust Building. Dave is one of downtown’s largest employers at Broadmoor Insurance. I don’t think there are two people in Rockford who have demonstrated more real commitment to downtown. I think some of our lawmakers need to get their priorities in order.

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are also available on his Web site: IrishRoseRockford.com and featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

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