Walking around downtown

Walking around downtown

By Mike Leifheit, Columnist

A number of years ago I owned the State and Madison building, or at least I was buying it on contract from First National Bank. First, I operated the Old Rock River Cafe and Deli, then I wound up taking over the rest of the building. One of my best customers was the former Mayor John McNamara. On one particular day, John came in for lunch with Doug Logan, who ran the MetroCentre.

They were discussing taking out the mall. I had just done my monthly walk around downtown delivering my specials fliers. I pointed out to them that the entire perimeter was alive and that once you moved in one or two buildings, it was dead. I suggested that instead of another high-priced study, they just walk the area themselves. I remember Doug argued with me somewhat. But not very long after that, the city tore out the mall. I like to think our conversation had some part in that decision. I think we all know now that the decision was the right one.

There have been a lot of fits and starts in the redevelopment of downtown. Most of the really good things have been done by private entrepreneurs. In the past few years, the city has elected to help business startups with most of the money coming from the private sector. I think that has been a good thing. It has helped to overcome some of the negative aspects of developing downtown by encouraging people to invest in businesses here and helping them with breaks like low-interest loans.

Now there is a plan to put living units in the old Amerock building across from Davis Park, and I think that is a really good idea. Unfortunately, that is about as far as it goes, a good idea. lt seems that the thought is to put low-income housing into this wonderful old building, and that is not a good idea. It is exactly the opposite of what we all have been trying to accomplish, raising the level of our downtown. The folks who are trying to bring you this are not bad people. I think they are trying to do the same thing we all are, redevelop downtown. I don’t think this kind of development will be the end of the world, but unfortunately, I don’t think it will be the start of anything.

Let’s look at a couple of other developments of this type, Jane Addams housing center and the Old City Hall. Jane Addams has all but reversed the direction that Haight Village was taking. It is hard to sell a neighborhood as upscale when there is a housing project right smack dab in the middle of it. Even Chicago folks who are tougher than we are about things like this would have a tough time swallowing this one. I think the accepted trend all across the nation is to decentralize low-cost housing. Why, then, are we centralizing it in such a large new project in downtown Rockford? Have we learned nothing?

I dated a woman who lived in the Old City Hall apartments. I can speak with a little authority about some of the tenants who originally inhabited this building. Several of them were drug dealers. The cars would pull up and honk, and someone would run down for a few seconds. (They were probably just hanging out.) I cannot say if this problem still exists. I can, however, state with certainty that it did initially.

We have such a good thing going—why do we want to spoil it? The restaurants and bars that have established themselves down here cater mostly to upper and middle class. When we bring in new businesses, the employees are impressed with the upscale direction our downtown is taking. The addition of the new Carlyle Brewery and the new Minglewood point to that being the right direction. Success is all around us, and it is definitely all upscale.

CCS YouthBuild has just taken over the old Mott Bros. building. They are in the process of getting it filled up. The city’s redevelopment efforts around Main and Morgan are beginning to pay off. There is a wonderful Mexican neighborhood that contains the best Mexican restaurants in the city. There is a wonderful loft apartment in the building now called Factory Studios. The Rockford Local Development Corporation is investing millions in the new supermarket on South Main, whatever you think about the displacement of the Mexican food store. On the other end, you have Davis Park and our wonderful downtown. Why would anyone want to drop a low-cost housing project into the middle of all of this? It is a waste of a wonderful resource (the old building). It would be better to allow it to lie fallow and wait for the push of upscale development that is occurring naturally. I think it is time some of these guys took a walk around downtown.

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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