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Guest Column: Mr. Mayor, do we share the same vision?

September 1, 2010

Built like the proverbial beer house that it is, the former storage building for Lorden Distribution Warehouse at 715 S. Main St. is massive in construction. Even the roof is poured cement. Urban Equity Properties says the framework can be a new work of art for the South Main Street Corridor. Photo by Frank Schier

By Mark Baker
Principal, Urban Equity Properties

We have all heard the disparaging remarks about Rockford. They come from residents and outsiders alike. The perception is that the city is on life support, and no amount of resuscitation will make a difference. It is one of the reasons investors shy away from Rockford, as a bad reputation is difficult to change.

I, for one, was ecstatic to hear Larry Mayor Morrissey’s (I) vision of a revived downtown. His plan includes cultural improvements and rehabilitation of architectural structures that define the city’s heritage. We believe in Rockford, and share many aspects of the mayor’s vision. Rehabilitating abandoned and/or run-down buildings accomplishes that vision.

Our local firm, Urban Equity Properties, has already invested heavily into the city. Our office is in the former Rockford Illustration building at 317 Market St. We purchased this building as an example of our company philosophy. This structure was one of the first industrial buildings renovated in the ’80s into residential lofts.

Our successful track record includes rehabilitation of downtown structures, with an emphasis on long-term ownership and management. The properties since 2006 include multi-unit housing on North Church Street, North Main Street, Jefferson Street (old Minglewood property) and most recently North First Street (American Gentlemen’s Club). Overall, that’s an investment of close to $4 million in downtown Rockford. How many other firms have made the same investment since 2006? Not many.

The adaptive re-use of these dilapidated structures provides local employment, civic pride and cultural growth. It begins the process of bringing these areas back to life.

Mr. Morrissey met with us Christmas Eve to discuss the South Main corridor. We expressed immediate interest in the purchase of 715 S. Main St., the former Lorden Distribution warehouse.

The discussion included our plans to invest private funds of more than $1.7 million into the rehabilitation and conversion of this building into loft apartments. Plans include architectural upgrades, with historic sensitivity. The mayor indicated this city-owned building had been perceived as an eyesore for years, and although they had considered demolition, nothing was set in stone. Future discussions were promised.

It is now August. Eight months have passed. Meeting after meeting with city employees have gone nowhere.

The story changes with every meeting, and the ultimate answer we get is demolition, pure and simple. Even at the cost of up to $700,000 to the taxpayers. Demolition without a plan in place for the immediate area. Demolition to create another expensive empty lot in Rockford. Along the way, it was discovered that the city in fact does not even own the property yet, with negotiations for purchase by the city still pending. The yarn went down the path of nonexistent and verbal contracts, all the way to unsubstantiated claims of poor structural integrity.

We have contacted and met with civic leaders, aldermen and alderwomen, local business people, former politicians, county officials, the list goes on and on. Their unanimous support is encouraging, believing that this rehabilitation project would be wonderful for the area and downtown as well. They understand that private local funds being invested at this location would jump-start the revitalization of the South Main corridor. Local contractors would be employed. The mayor’s expressed vision would be on the way to fulfillment.

Yet, the answer we get from the city is still the same. Forget it. Demolition at the taxpayer’s expense. Mr. Morrissey, can you be of assistance here? Do we no longer share the same vision?

From the Sept. 1-7, 2010 issue

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