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New Phenix owner: ‘Apartments are amazing’

July 1, 1993

John Smith is excited. The new owner of the Phenix building, 303-313 Mulberry St., has been busy cleaning, painting, fixing and scrubbing the upstairs apartments, readying them for potential renters who are anxious to live in Rockford’s downtown.

The copper-colored building, accented with red awnings, features five storefronts at ground level, four luxury apartments and an office upstairs.

Three of the storefronts have tenants. Two, PCI Computer Technology and In Style Salon, were there before Smith bought the Phenix. Positive Image Church of God in Christ bought the third storefront, and will move in soon.

Smith, who also owns 30 units in Champaign-Urbana, fell in love with the Phenix building and knew right away that it was a worthy investment.

“I personally think downtown is filled with investment opportunity,” Smith said. “Downtown is up-and-coming, and you don’t make money buying property where everyone else already is.”

New to Rockford, Smith acquired the 80-year-old building from a bank foreclosure, and was stunned by the building’s beautiful apartments.

The apartment’s perks: Spacious 10-foot ceilings, 1,500 sq. feet, two bedrooms, appliances, a city view, and within walking distance to downtown Rockford.

“Those apartments are amazing,” Smith said. Smith spent hours researching the building’s history and at what price to set rent.

“I am asking $895 for the units,” Smith said. “I’ve done the research of what market-rate is, and I set rent a little lower. My first year I’m willing to take a hit because the apartments are empty.”

Smith has started advertising the apartments and said they are ready for rental immediately.

Smith received his bachelor’s in speech communication from the University of Illinois, and his master’s in education from Eastern Illinois University. He became interested in real estate and took a few classes at a community college, and got his first experience buying property after he got married when he and his wife went house hunting.

“I was looking to buy a house and ended up buying an apartment building,” he said. “I was scared to death. The building cost more than I had earned cumulatively in my life.” In the short time Smith has been here, he has become a strong advocate for downtown Rockford. He was in strict opposition to the proposed Amerock project. “I was disturbed when I heard what was going on,” Smith said. “I was very involved to see that something like this would stop. I don’t want to see 80 more units drawing low-income tenants because they don’t have disposable income.”

Smith is also enthusiastic about what downtown Rockford has to offer.

“The perception of the area is that it’s bad, but it’s changing,” Smith said. A majority of the city’s best restaurants are downtown. The Coronado and New American Theater are downtown. Now it’s a matter of letting it catch on throughout the community.”

Smith has so much faith in downtown that he’s looking into buying two more buildings to convert into apartments. “I’ve got a lot of money invested in downtown,” Smith said. “I’m betting on the growth and development there.”

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