Patriots’ Gateway causes anxiety among some neighbors

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114184732813895.jpg’, ‘Photo by Melissa Wangall’, ‘The worn bridge on South Fifth Street seemingly separating two worlds.’);

The worn bridge on South Fifth Street seems to be the gateway between two worlds. On the south are broken bottles in the streets, garbage-littered lawns and crumbling homes. On the north are clean streets, solid buildings and an air of safety.

The north side is home to Patriots’ Gateway Community Center (PGCC), a nonprofit organization providing programs to the people of the community. PGCC offers after-school programs that range from early childhood educational programs to knitting and wood shop, and practice times for participants of the Barbara Olson Center for Hope, which assists people with developmental disabilities. The Rockford Lightning professional basketball team practices in the center’s gymnasium, and Regional Learning Academy, an alternative school, rents space in the PGCC, filling the center with youth during the day.

Jim Flodin, executive director and CEO of PGCC, said: “When a lot of people think of a community center, they think of a recreation center. We’re just about as much educational as we are recreational. There’s a big difference than most centers. We have schools going here. They feed them, they bus them in here. It’s their last chance. Nobody wanted those kids. They were kicked out of every place they were at. Four years ago, I saw them and said, ‘We’ll take them. We’ll take them.’ I’m a first generation (in America from Sweden). I know what it is to be poor. This place is an educational, recreational and a guidance place.”

Flodin served as president and CEO of the Boys’ and Girls’ Club of Rockford for 36 years. The club is now named the Flodin Boys’ and Girls’ Club in his honor.

Despite the many positive programs offered by the PGCC, one former employee of PGCC said he believes looks could be deceiving.

Wade Hendrickson, maintenance supervisor of PGCC from 2000-2004 and neighbor of PGCC since 2000, said the PGCC was a wonderful place before Flodin took over as executive director in 2002, replacing Penny Ishan. With Flodin’s introduction, Hendrickson said, came some anxiety as to how PGCC was conducting business in the neighborhood. He said different construction projects and business deals raised concern for him and his neighbors.

The 2005 construction of the Junior Golf Learning Center—owned by PGCC and across the street from PGCC—is one of the projects that had Hendrickson and some of his neighbors concerned. For the building of the golf site, 13 area houses had to be torn down. The Rockford Register Star described these houses as “houses of prostitution” and “drug houses” in an October 2005 article.

Hendrickson, a five-year resident of Fourth Street, alleged: “There was some people selling crack, and there was probably a few prostitutes, but as far as a house of prostitution, he (Flodin) was kind of exaggerating that. You think the cops would do something [if there were a problem]. He’s (Flodin) using all of this as an excuse to get what he wants.”

Hendrickson said a petition was given to Flodin in regard to the neighborhood’s feelings toward the new construction of the golf facility. Flodin denied receiving such a petition. Neighbors interviewed also had no recollection of a petition.

Hendrickson alleged people were forced out of their homes without any notice once the rental properties were sold to PGCC. He also said people went to work and returned to their rented homes to find them “gutted,” with furnaces, refrigerators and stoves stripped from the houses.

Hendrickson alleged Flodin gave the materials to PGCC President Jerry Flaming to be used in rental properties owned by Flaming. Flodin, however, said he took two furnaces from the properties, giving one to an area resident and one to Flaming to be used in a low-income facility. Other furnaces recovered from homes were used as “filler” in the construction process of the golf facility, Flodin said.

Flodin said people were given notice, and one family was even allowed to stay until it could find adequate housing.

“We didn’t ask too many people to leave,” Flodin said. He said many of the houses were vacant. The previous owner of many of the rental properties that would become the golf facility did not respond to a message left at his home.

Tim Dimke, chief operating officer of the Rockford Park District, a partner of the PGCC and a sponsor of the First Tee golf facility, said: “I was aware that there was some concerns. We (Rockford Park District) weren’t brought into any negotiations with homeowners. There’s always concerns by everyone until they get the full appreciation of the benefits. What were all those kids doing 10 years ago before the Patriots’ Center was built? What’s more important is, what are they doing now?”

Dimke cited PGCC’s family classes and after-school activities, which he says “gets the whole neighborhood involved.”

AMCORE Bank’s “AMCORE Foundation,” another sponsor of the First Tee facility and a partner of PGCC, said through spokesman Katherine Taylor, “That has not been brought to our attention,” in response to neighbor concerns of PGCC construction. Taylor added, “We work with the Patriots’ Gateway Center and support them in their revitalization efforts of the Mid Town District.”

One previous occupant of the neighborhood said PGCC gave him one to two months of moving time, an estimated $1,000 for moving costs and $90,000 for his home, a substantial amount for a house with a fair market value of $69,000, according to PGCC Realtor and PGCC First Vice President Jim Barbagallo. The previous owner purchased the house in 2001 for $59,500.

The occupant said he did not want to move. He said he estimated $300-$400 of supply costs and thousands of dollars worth of man hours were put into improvements to the home since he moved in. He said he had planned to make more improvements. The occupant also said he had considered fighting PGCC, but feared eminent domain and a loss of profit, making PGCC’s offer too good to refuse.

The former resident said: “I could only hold out for so long. This [new] house has higher equity value, [but] we feel in our heart that we had more potential” at the former residence due to yard space and improvements already made on the property.

The former owner also said, “My goal was to not be financially set back,” citing another reason to sell, although most money obtained from the sale went to the resident’s new home. He added, “I hope the best for their golf course.”

Other neighbors interviewed in this area of the Mid Town District echoed many of the same sentiments, including the fear of being forced to sell their property to PGCC in the future.

Barbagallo said: “This was really an abandoned area. Looking at what’s there now and what was there, the potential of that coming back to life was little to none. The one thing I’ve a little bit of a moral issue [with is] if I see something that looked like the house was habitable or you could reconstruct it…at that point, take a look at it. These were just beyond help. Windows and doors missing and the weather had penetrated. One of the houses had floors that were about 2.5 feet tall [due to swelling from water]. It was absurd. I guess looking at it in the whole retrospect, what was there and what is there is probably a much better move at this point. You’ve got something that’s going to help the neighborhood flourish and, certainly, live.

“It was at least 45 days’ notice on the tenants that we did when the contract was written, but prior to that there was all kinds of notice ’cause it was going on,” Barbagallo added. “The tenants sort of knew what was happening, because Patriots’ is right across the street. They weren’t afraid to come in the front door and [ask] ‘What’s going on?’ I’d say if there’s anything that there’s a tenant shortcut, it goes back to the landlord rather than us. We (Realtors) usually buy, sell, get out, [but] he (Flodin) says, ‘No, I want to make sure people have plenty of notice.’”

Hendrickson, however, said, “I’m really aggravated that people who don’t even live in the neighborhood are makin

g decisions about the neighborhood.”

Hendrickson alleged Flodin’s son was hired at Rockford Blacktop at the same time Rockford Blacktop won the bid for the construction of the golf facility. However, Rockford Blacktop Human Resources Department employee Rae Lynn Swenson said there was no one with the last name Flodin who had worked or was working at Rockford Blacktop.

Flodin said: “We had two bids. One from Cooling [Landscape Contractors] and one from [Rockford] Blacktop and we took Blacktop. They were $40,000 (cheaper). The price cost, demolition and everything else somewhere between $700,000 and $800,000. Most of it was demolition and buying property. $350,000 was the bid [from Blacktop]. We came under budget. They’re very nice people. They care.”

A building permit filed with the City of Rockford Building Department in May 2005 showed Rockford Blacktop as the contractor for 702 S. Fourth St., property owned by PGCC, and the site of the golf facility. The value of the building permit was $40,000, and the value of the project was $300,000. Demolition included destruction of several buildings and the grading of the land.

Chris Cooling, owner of Cooling Landscape Contractors, would not reveal his company’s bid. He said it was “confidential to our customers and to ourselves.” He added Rockford Blacktop “usually seem to be lower on demolitions.”

Another point of concern for Hendrickson was Rockford Blacktop Vice President Benjamin Holmstrom’s possible role as a board member of the PGCC during the demolition of property that would become home to the First Golf Tee, owned by PGCC.

Holmstrom is listed as a board member of PGCC in the PGCC’s fall 2004 newsletter. According to information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from the City of Rockford Building Department, Rockford Blacktop contracted two lots and part of another, listed as 720 S. Fourth St., for demolition purposes in December 2004. An exact date of Holmstrom’s resignation was not available by time of publication.

According to Flaming, Holmstrom left his role because “he couldn’t do his job [because of other responsibilities]. And our philosophy on the board is if you don’t make the meetings and you don’t contribute, we’ll find someone else that can. Because it’s too important.”

From the March 8-14, 2006, issue

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