Hanging Out in Rockford: Twice a bridesmaid

Twenty or so years ago, there was a plan to put a hotel where the Rockford Furniture Mart used to be. The old Richardson-designed YMCA was to be the showpiece for the hotel. It would have probably contained the restaurant, bar and hotel reception area. Bill Johanness, the architect, designed it. Sunil Puri was trying to put the financing together. I was incredibly excited by the project. It would have made me a millionaire, being right across the street from a Radison Hotel. I wrote about this time in a column a few weeks ago.

I am riding my motorcycle downtown when I see “For Sale” signs in this beautiful old building. I pull immediately to the curb and call the number on my cell phone. I have been looking for larger quarters for the Irish Rose for some time now. We looked at a spot on North Main Street to build a new stand-alone building. I even formed a corporation and had drawings done, but for one reason or another, that fell through.

But here it was now, the building of my dreams. I am struck by the karma of it coming back around. Maybe there is a reason. Maybe it was waiting for me. I make an appointment with the Realtor, Emmett Gray of Whitehead, to look at the building. I want to make a full-price offer immediately, but I decide to take my friend Rob Belles, the architect, with me because I want to be sure I can do what I want to do in the structure. I want to make the upper portion a small downtown hotel, sort of a bed and breakfast, only we are going to call it bed and dinner. Dinner is better than breakfast.

Rob calls me on the phone and says that if I put my apartment in the attic, I can put my bed in the tower room. He says that there are little windows around the floor, so if I put my bed on the floor, I can look out them. I pretty much can’t think of anything else at that point. I envision myself lying on my mattress on the floor, the first night I have the place and looking out the window at my old State and Madison Building, where I had the Old Rock River Café, right across the street.

I call the old girlfriend, the one I lived with above where Runner’s Image is now. She is totally ecstatic for me. We used to be able to look at the East Side Inn out our front window. It was like being in Georgetown. I remember the night Ed McCullogh was upstairs there in my apartment, and he was arguing that there was nothing you could do to save downtown.

This is what I have always wanted to do, and downtown is where I want to be. This building is the building of my dreams. I am about as excited by the prospect as I can be. After some preliminary numbers, Rob tells me the plan is workable, and I make an offer. Suddenly, everyone is making offers on the property. I make a full-price offer with only financing as a contingency. I am thinking of offering more than full price, but my son in a telephone call from Budapest convinces me to make only a full-price offer. I am not aware of the other offers, but evidently one of them is at more than full price.

The building goes away for a time, then like a bashful bride, it comes back around. I increase my offer. I go to my lenders and to the people who have offered to help me put this thing together, and I produce letters from all of them indicating that they will give my financing due consideration. I show a clear track for the project, but the seller wants a cleaner and quicker deal.

When the hotel project came up 20 or more years ago, City Hall wasn’t on the side of Sunil and Bill. They didn’t have the vision. This isn’t the case now. I get all sorts of encouragement from City Hall. Community Development goes out of its way to try to influence the acceptance of my deal. When the hotel deal came up 20 years ago, the present owner of the building fought to put offices in the building. He had a high-profile legal firm as a prospective tenant. We got less than, rather than more. Now he just wants out. He is just interested in the quickest financing. He isn’t from Rockford.

Friday night, I am at my bar. Matthew Provenzano is sitting with a friend having a drink. I tell him about my attempt to buy the building. He tells me that the word on the street is that the deal has already gone down. Matt is probably right; he is a person in the know. I am heartbroken. I am twice a bridesmaid but, in this case, at least with this building, never a bride. But, you know, this is the perfect project for me, and I am the perfect person for this project. It came back before, maybe it will come back again.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the Nov. 22-28, 2006, issue

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