By Jim Hagerty
A key vote was met with resounding applause inside Council Chambers Monday, April 7, as aldermen approved the plan to turn the downtown Amerock building into a hotel along the Rock River.
The item had been with the Planning and Development Committee for the past few weeks, where Alds. Ann Thompson-Kelly, D-7, and Ninth Ward independent Teena Newburg said they were not ready to approve it without additional information. Tonight, both praised the plan, saying a hotel and convention center would help return downtown to economic prominence.
The 13-1 vote puts the project in the hands of Milwaukee developer Gorman & Co.
“I’ve always supported this project,” Thompson-Kelly said. “I just had concerns about the financing.”
The financing, according to the development agreement, includes nearly $52 million from Gorman, the company responsible for redeveloping Milwaukee’s famous Pabst Brewery building. The project transformed the brewery into the Blue Ribbon Lofts, a 100-unit complex on the once-blighted north side.
In Rockford, Gorman worked with the Rockford Housing Authority to build the Jane Addams Park Apartments at 502 Seminary St. The project was completed last year.
“We are not in the business of taking financial risks,” Ald. Kevin Frost, R-4, said. “That’s why we have developers. I want to applaud Gorman for coming forward. Because, let’s face it, they are the private investors here who are taking the risks and gambling on Rockford. I like that.”
The city will spend nearly $20 million from the motor fuel tax to build a parking deck, turn South Main Street into a two-way street and make improvements along Chestnut Street. The motor fuel tax is part of Rockford’s capital improvement program.
“I commend Gorman,” Newburg said. “Every question that was asked of them they answered. I was a definite ‘no,’ but with speaking (of) what the city has done and what I want from Rockford, I want Rockford to succeed. I remember going downtown shopping and eating lunch and going to the movies and riding the bus from Springfield to West State. I want to see that again. I want to see the shops. I want to see the little businesses come in and make a go and make me proud of Rockford.”
Although McNeely studied the proposal, her doubts still outweighed an ability to get behind the project. She said the project was presented with lofty projections.
“The price went from $17 million to $70 million,” McNeely said. “So, I am not sure we really know what those costs are.”
The project is expected to bring more than 250 construction jobs to town and about 100 more when the hotel opens. It must be completed by the end of 2016 to be eligible for historic tax credits.
At 416 S. Main St., the Amerock building was built in three phases between 1912 and 1950. Also known as the Ziock Building, the structure has been vacant since the 1980s, after 60 years as a flagship manufacturing center. Since 1995, a host of developers were hampered by poor planning and economic woes in their attempts to revive the structure.
That changed in 2010, when the grassroots group, Friends of the Ziock Building (FOZ), led a charge that landed it on the National Register of Historic Places.
The historic listing made the building eligible for up to 45 percent in tax rebates by way of the Illinois Historic Tax Credit. It also saved the city-owned building from demolition.
“There are a lot of people who feel that one person can’t make a difference,” FOZ spokesman Marge Bevers said. “But, they really can if they are doing it for the right reasons. Don (Bissell) started this by himself. We then got the state to say, ‘You can’t tear the building down.’ Then, last night, Rockford came together—people from the east side and downtown. The city can see the benefits now.”
River District President Gary Anderson, of Gary W. Anderson Architects, helped form FOZ and has watched the project go from an idea to what he says will soon be a major component in a newly branded city.
“This project will propel Rockford into another era, especially downtown,” Anderson said. “All the initial hard work has paid off. It’s been a long process, but we still have a ways to go.”
As a hotel, the Amerock building will complement the proposed 104,000-square-foot indoor sports facility at 301-401 S. Water St., the former Ingersoll complex.
In other business, aldermen voted 10-4 to approve a liquor license for a Rural Street bar, across from Schnucks supermarket. “Rural on Tap” will open at 1710 Rural St., by this fall. Owners Nick Fosberg and Derrick Kunz agreed to 17 license restrictions to open the establishment.
Per an agreement with the city, the bar is prohibited from offering video gaming terminals (slots), hiring full bands and DJs and charging a cover.
Alds. Karen Elyea, D-11, Beach, Thompson-Kelly and McNeely voted against the bar, citing possible noise problems and lack of parking. Parking for the bar was approved with a 11-3 vote.
Opponent Ken Becker, whose office, Becker Realtors, is an adjacent property, has not given up the fight. Despite full council approval of the bar, Becker insists the process may be reversed next week when the item is up for approval as an ordinance.
Deputy City Administrator Julia Valdez said that once the council has done its initial approval of a measure, it is rarely reversed by aldermen. An approved measure may also be argued through legal steps before it becomes an ordinance, Valdez said.
Becker asserts that he has more than 240 signatures of neighbors on petitions that oppose Rural on Tap. He says he will use the signatures to prevent a council vote for an ordinance next Monday, April 14. Becker’s viewpoint can be seen in full in the Commentary section.