Chuck Sweeny, Rockford Register Star, Apr. 5, 2014
Whatever I’m doing, I like to get right to the point. Here’s what I think about redeveloping downtown into an exciting, interesting, vibrant and moneymaking place:
It’s now or never.
Aldermen can make or break downtown’s — and Rockford’s — future depending on how they vote Monday night. That’s how important the vote will be to OK the Ziock development.
For more than 40 years I’ve been reading newspaper stories, sometimes writing them, about pending deals on a hotel/conference center for downtown Rockford. Those developments never happened because the “developer” always was a version of Professor Harold Hill of “The Music Man.”
Fast talker. No money. No trombones.
Meanwhile, I got darned tired of having to look at the empty Ziock building, or Amerock building (as I prefer), slowly losing its windowpanes after the screw company left more than 20 years ago. I eventually urged the building’s demolition, and I can’t resist a John Kerryism here: “I was for demolishing the building before I was against it.”
That’s because we finally have a “real” developer with a proven track record, Wisconsin-based Gorman & Co., which wants to put up $52 million to turn the 13-story building into a 150-room hotel and conference center.
The hotel development on the west bank of the Rock River will coincide with the transformation of the former W.F. and John Barnes (later Ingersoll) factory on the east bank into an indoor sports complex that can hold tournaments throughout the year. The two are a block apart, connected by the Chestnut Street bridge.
Other developers are watching this like hawks. The Rockford Trust building could be repurposed. Buildings in the 300 and 400 block of East State Street already are being remodeled. The BMO Harris Bank Center and Coronado Performing Arts Center are humming. Locally owned restaurants abound.
Justin Fern of Urban Equity wants to spend $10 million to turn the former Hanley Furniture building into shops and offices. If aldermen reject the Ziock project, Fern says, all bets are off.
Downtowns are being revitalized all over this continent. The leading example is right next door. Said Crain’s Chicago Business in 2013: “According to Richard Greene, a Northern Illinois University geographer and urban researcher, Chicago’s central population leaped 114 percent from 1990 to 2010, hitting 141,511. … The city is so hot that this expanded downtown is adding residents faster than any other urban core in America, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.”
Rockford has been late getting to the party. But the successful redevelopment of the old brewery into the Prairie Street Brewhouse on the east bank of the river, and the lively, trendy restaurants just east of the river on State, provide an exciting idea of what the central riverfront area could become.
There is a local cost to the Ziock project. Let’s face it, downtown is a nightmare of pointless one-way streets and street segments that confuse the heck out of anyone coming here from out of town. I know this because truck drivers trying to make deliveries to our loading dock are totally perplexed. Then they have to ask directions for getting out of town because you can’t go back the way you came. I have a hard time telling them the best way to go because there is no best way, only a variety of bad ways.
So Gorman wants the city to make long-needed traffic improvements and add a parking ramp. Altogether that will cost $18.6 million. One splendid way to get most of the money would be to cancel the planned $15.5 million downsizing of the Whitman Street interchange. This is a project without a constituency except for some propeller heads at City Hall. Put it in the closet where the Wallenberg Expressway is stored.
Every conference, every convention I’ve attended has featured a brochure picturing the inviting skyline, riverfront, lakefront or oceanfront of the host city. What are we supposed to picture? How about a bright, inviting riverfront that says “You need to see this place.”
Yes, that’s show business; everything in America is, political guru Zeke Giorgi once said. Are we ready for prime time? Or do we wish to skulk back into the comfortable negativity that has frustrated progress since our great-grandfathers ignored the forward-looking Rockford Plan of 1918 and slowly kill the city?
As I said aldermen, it’s now or never. Let’s see a 13-1 vote, because in Rockford, that’s unanimous.