Guest Column: River District president demands action on downtown development
Editor’s note: Following is the full text of public participation comments that were abbreviated when delivered by River District Association President and local architect Gary Anderson at the Monday, Oct. 21, Rockford City Council meeting. The comments are presented here as a guest column.
By Gary Anderson
Speaking on behalf of the River District as president, I would like you to know that our board of directors, membership and businesses love our downtown, remain passionate and believe in its bright and exciting future. Nevertheless, we are discouraged by several issues.
Tonight, largely due to Historic Tax Credits, we anticipate an unprecedented private investment of over $100 million in the next two years. But those investments in multiple projects could be thwarted by three extremely urgent issues. We are here to demand your immediate attention.
Issue No. 1: The cyclone fence mentality
Two years ago, you ripped out the mall, upgrading Main Street with a $2 million investment. You spent $20 million on the BMO Center. These investments have, in fact, attracted more patrons, visitors and private investment. BUT … you have owned the Chick Hotel for more than 10 years and it’s been surrounded by a cyclone fence for at least eight years. At last count, this eyesore has resulted in 1 million negative impressions as people enter the BMO. What kind of message are we sending to our visitors … that we don’t give a damn? You should be embarrassed by your inaction and failure to exploit positive economic opportunities like the Chick Hotel and others.
Two blocks north and nine months ago, you purchased 134 N. Main St. for $1. Our recollection is that the building was to have been offered immediately to the private sector for redevelopment. We know of at least THREE developers who were more than interested. We’ve asked repeatedly for a status report. The outdoor dining experience at Octane, one of our finest restaurants, sits in our million-dollar streetscape and has been bordered by — a cyclone fence for the past year-and-a-half.
The River District requests that RFPs be approved by next Monday night for the redevelopment of the Chick Hotel and 134 N. Main St. Each should be a separate proposal, not encumbered with unreasonable requirements. Please … no more excuses; no more delays, just provide some action-oriented leadership.
To the casual observer, your inaction demonstrates gross disrespect to adjacent business and property owners. Is this the way we should approach economic development and reinvestment — by acting like a slum landlord? And … is it our intention to continue to treat our local businesses in this manner?
You have held these and other properties far too long. Please represent your constituents appropriately and facilitate the sale of these buildings to private-sector development.
Issue No. 2: Building maintenance and public safety
In the course of my architectural practice, we work with many other municipalities — who, by the way, differ from Rockford in that they protect their investments by maintaining and making necessary improvements to their own buildings while at the same time maintaining public safety.
You just condemned the Hanley Building — an action long overdue. The building has a gaping hole in its roof … and the owner has no plans for the building. You need to motivate the owner — you should be levying heavy daily fines. Put yourself in the shoes of the owners and tenants in the William Brown Building … how would you be feeling about your investment right about now?
Why are we not proactive in preserving assets that pay property taxes? We allow properties to deteriorate at the expense of us all. Both of these properties have the potential and the financial tools to make them viable.
Issue No. 3: Assessed property value
Declining property values and an out-of-control Mil rate of almost $14 per $100 of evaluation is cause for alarm — and immediate action. For decades, we’ve recognized and endured low (and declining) property values in spite of substantial major renovations downtown. Sadly, in the eyes of our assessor, a return on investment of 20 to 30 cents on the dollar has been the norm. This does not foster nor sustain an atmosphere conducive to investment — on the contrary, it is economic suicide. Historic Tax Credits have helped change that picture, but the bankability of loans remains encumbered by assessed values.
The Friends of Ziock have spent THOUSANDS of hours promoting, marketing and supporting the development of the Ziock/Amerock Building. You approved and granted Gorman & Co., an option to do its due diligence. The administration has been highly supportive in receiving Gorman’s proposal. Now, as part of TIF processing, the assessor’s office reviewed the proposed plans that have an estimated construction value of $45 million yet found it to be worth only $4.9 million. How is it possible to dismiss 90 percent of the project value? Not only that, Ken Crowley further discouraged Gorman by saying that the project could NOT be done and “no one is capable of making it work.” What an outrageous and (according to Gorman) unprecedented way to discourage economic development! We spend hundreds of thousands of valuable dollars and untold amounts of effort to entice new commerce, and with one conversation, the assessor can negate all our efforts.
The assessor’s office must be held accountable for how they appraise and assess buildings. Their method of calculating values is clearly flawed, antiquated and unreasonable. It completely discourages and undermines development and investments. This downward spiral of property values, if allowed to persist, will ultimately turn our community into a literal wasteland.
You should know that we have initiated a private-sector task group and ask to work with you to solve this issue of declining property values. It is complex, difficult, and it will not be an overnight fix. But other communities have faced similar issues, found solutions … and so can we.
Tonight, we’re at a proverbial crossroads. From our perspective, bold action is mandatory. We urge you to be a council of visionary and decisive action.
Gary W. Anderson
President, River District Association
From the Oct. 23-29, 2013, issue