Downtown library’s future remains uncertain
By Jim Hagerty
ComEd is prepared to begin an environmental cleanup project underneath the downtown branch of the Rockford Public Library, yet little is known about when that will occur.
The goal is to remove coal tar — residue from a manufactured gas plant that operated at 215 N. Wyman St., for more than 40 years in the 1800s. The problem is, workers must dig into the building’s foundation to reach them, which means staff must be evacuated during the process. It also means the structure will likely need to be razed.
“It looks like we will lose the building,” Rockford Public Library Community Relations Officer Deborah Fortune said. “It no longer functions as a 21st-century library, and the foundation may have to be destroyed. But, we don’t know when that will happen. ComEd and RPL are still talking to determine what the best remediation should be.”
It was announced last fall the building would close or move to a temporary location during the cleanup. Although ComEd is prepared to begin, library officials have yet to announce a timeline.
“As far as ComEd knows, there is no imminent plan to begin cleanup,” ComEd External Affairs Manager Paul Callighan said. “I know the library is working to find a cost-effective plan to find a temporary location.”
One possible spot is the Nordlof Center (formerly New American Theater, 118 N. Main St.). A move there would go along with Library Board President Paul Logli’s plan to keep the main branch downtown, and it would stay in a building the library owns. The move would also force the library to reduce its physical collection.
“We could put some administrative offices there, but there would be little room for books,” Fortune said. “The community uses the theater.”
Last Friday, Aug. 29, following a library staff institute day, an anonymous source who claimed to work for the library reported library employees were asked to pose for a group photo because the building was closing. The photo was arranged by Fortune, who said she got the idea because workers from all branches were present and a photographer from Trekk Design was on hand.
“I told them, ‘Because of the state of the building, we might not have another chance to take such a picture,’” Fortune said. “But, we really aren’t in any different position than we were when ComEd did the testing.”
ComEd, which bought Rockford Gas in 1966, began testing the soil around the library four years ago. Testing involved drilling through the basement, which nixed a project that would have placed some of Rock Valley College’s services downtown. That’s when Fortune said saving the building seemed like a long shot. And because the building is larger than needed, she views the change as one to better serve Rockford.
“This building contains a lot of wasted space,” Fortune said. “We really don’t need to be this big. We look at moving as a chance to reinvent ourselves and really do something great for our patrons.”
Logli said in a published report last fall the library would be temporarily relocated by spring 2015. That plan could still be in place, although Fortune said it may be wishful thinking, as it could take as long as a year or more to pack up more than 200,000 books.
“We are working on packing things up, because we know that we will have to move when work starts,” Fortune added.
The library is also in the process of hiring a new executive director after Frank Novak left in April to head the library in Huntley, Illinois. Assistant Director Fay Muhammad has assumed the role of interim director while the board selects a replacement. Muhammad is a candidate to assume the permanent position.
“Whether Fay moves into that role, or we get a new executive director, that person will announce more about the building,” Fortune said.
A new executive director is expected within the next 60 days, she said.
What would come of the riverfront land if the library is razed remains a question. A modern library could be built in its place, or the property could be sold to serve another sector of the market. Talks of a casino or a riverboat dock downtown have been ample since Rockford was first named in a gambling expansion bill a few years ago. So far, Rockford hasn’t been awarded anything beyond video gaming machines.
“I can’t see that,” Fortune said. “As far as I know, the mayor wouldn’t allow a casino down here.”
Before modern natural gas services, gas was manufactured locally for heating, cooking and lighting. This involved the use of coal and oil, which created a byproduct that more than 1,000 manufactured gas plants in the United States stored in underground bins.
The Rockford Gas Light and Coke manufactured gas at the corner of North Wyman and Mulberry streets from 1857 to 1898. The plant was moved to Avon Street in 1899. The city bought the Wyman Street property in 1902, and the library was built a year later with a $70,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie, on top of underground coal tar containers.
From the Sept. 3-9, 2014, issue