River District positive efforts…

The River District Association’s recently revealed and much-touted Framework Study has outlined several wonderful dreams for downtown Rockford’s development as a center for government, culture and entertainment, business and urban living. From the proposed Federal Building-Courthouse with spacious plaza extending all the way down to the river and Davis Park, to the magnificent expansion of the Riverfront Museum Park to include new galleries, gardens, an IMAX theater and a river bank theater-amphitheater and restaurant, to a suggested possibility of a multiplex cinema adjacent to the Midway Theater, this is probably the most ambitious and expansive set of dreams the city has yet produced. And hopefully, with the influential park district, the county and the city, now with a mayor whose heart and attention seems actively concentrated on helping, perhaps something actually will start happening.

Indeed, there has been enthusiastic and encouraging activity downtown, on both sides of the Rock River, for several years. I have watched the grassroots attempts of River District gradually grow and begin to take the shape of progress in many little ways over the six years I have been involved. I have also seen setbacks and disappointments, like the closing of fine new restaurants and struggling little retail shops. The encouraging developments like the Coronado and the expanded Burpee Museum added powerful positive impressions, and conversions such as the Old Brewery into the new Rockford Marina give us all hope for more progress. The soon-to-be- open Trinity Learning Center across the street from Trinity Lutheran Church on Jefferson Street adds greatly to the sense of stability, security and progress in the area.

But it is the work of the “little guys” that goes on in a kind of “behind-the-scenes” way, that interests me most; particularly in the residential and small business arena. One of the favorite topics of conversation within groups of downtown enthusiasts is always something like: “that new little shop on Mulberry with the apartments upstairs,” or “that old house that’s being restored on Court Street,” or “that brick multi-plex that’s being renovated on Fisher.” These are the thingsthat give that additional bit of impetus and encouragement to those of us who love downtown Rockford and choose to live here. Everyone agrees the River District needs more urban residential development. Not only the wonderful up-market lofts and conversions we are so lucky to have seen develop in the last few years, but even more important: additional attractive and convenient mid-range housing.

One of the most desirable combinations needed would blend street-level retail with upstairs residential. Several projects on both sides of the river are already proving successful in the heart of downtown, on Wyman, Main, Church, as well as East State Street from the river through Block Five.

Several such projects deserve attention. One is an interesting conversion of what was formerly industrial into a triple-threat combination now of industrial, commercial and residential. What was previously Gioletto Sheet Metal at 130 N. Madison, corner of Market, has been thoughtfully and tastefully converted into the commercial offices of Rockford Associates: Planners and Architects on street level, a beautiful, spacious residential loft with full amenities and river view deck on second floor (currently available for rent or lease), and the industrially zoned Gioletto Sheet Metal business still occupying the lower level, opening out onto the rear yard and parking area.

This has been the project of Miles Gillott, a man with great enthusiasm for Rockford’s urban growth, combining several conversion-renovation projects right in the center of River District with interests in other projects in Chicago, Jo Daviess County, and recently even in rural France. Gillott is also responsible for the renovation of 120 N. Madison, currently occupied by Ginestra Advertising, with tentative development planned for the lower level; and, thus far, he has requested absolutely no tax dollars. He has also recently acquired a multi-storied building on East State Street, complete with elevator and wonderful open spaces, which he hopes to develop into multi-use retail, office and/or residential spaces.

Gillott is one of many imaginative entrepreneurs who believe in actively pursuing a vision of a vital downtown Rockford. River District needs even more such enthusiasts, anyone who might be even considering a living space downtown, or starting a small retail business or residential rental development, and especially those who are intrigued by renovating or restoring a building for owner-occupied living. There are literally dozens of opportunities available to anyone interested in investigating any of these possibilities. Information on available properties, small business loans and other assistance from various sources, can be requested from the River District office at 127 N. Wyman, Rockford 61101 or call (815) 964-6221.

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