Former Rockford Amerock factory’s transformation has begun

Originally published in the Rockford Register Star

ROCKFORD — Seven years after Rockford bought the 13-story dilapidated former Amerock factory and the building appeared headed for near certain demolition, the site is buzzing with the hum, whine and crashes of construction crews.

They’re taking the first steps of a two-year journey to transform what for decades was an eyesore and sad symbol of Rockford’s industrial past into a four-star hotel and conference center.

By December 2019, Gary Gorman of Gorman & Company expects to put the finishing touches on an $87.5 million Hilton Embassy Suites and Rockford Conference Center that promises to change the face of downtown, the first impression of visitors and perhaps how the city feels about itself.

“People are going to come to this hotel and conference center and they are going to be impressed,” Gorman said. “The image of Rockford is going to be created by the first impression they get when they walk into the hotel, when they walk into the conference center, when they go up to the 12th floor deck and they see the view down the river — which is the most spectacular view in the city. I think it’s going to change what people’s impression is of Rockford.” 

The 160-room hotel and 40,000-square-foot conference center will feature two restaurants, rooftop lounge with two levels of outdoor seating, access to Davis Park, swimming pool, game room for kids, and plenty more. Gorman is already marketing the facility to event planners.

And he is also preparing what he calls “sizzle factor” amenities.

“Let me give you an example: private elevator to a two-level spa with an outside deck with hot tubs and view of the river and the city,” Gorman said. “We have a whole series of those kind of things.”

Some said this day would never come: Rockford had at one point planned to grind the remains of the factory tower into footings for the rebuilt Morgan Street Bridge.

But the Friends Of Ziock, a group of downtown boosters and historic preservationists who adopted the name of the building’s original owner, worked to save the building, which was the city’s first skyscraper when it was built in 1912.

Although the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency had given Rockford permission to tear the building down, the agency reversed course after getting a letter from Rockford resident and retired engineer Don Bissell, who made a case for saving it.

The building was eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places and must be redeveloped in compliance with historic preservation standards.

“This is a project that is going to get done,” Bissell said. “It’s going to change the whole profile of downtown.”

Former mayor Larry Morrissey championed the project and took four trips to China to help Gorman secure $30 million in foreign investment. Rockford is paying for construction of the $12.5 million conference center and Gorman has secured mortgages and historic preservation tax credits to finance the project.

Morrissey said the project shows what Rockford is capable of doing.

“We will reach a new level of success in downtown that we haven’t seen in my lifetime,” Morrissey said.

Since closing on financing in late December, construction crews have already abated asbestos in the building. Interior demolition is underway to prepare for construction. Crews use a “skip hoist,” essentially a freight elevator, that was installed on the exterior of the building and is capable of lifting 6,000 pounds of heavy equipment between floors, said Gorman & Company Construction Superintendent Nick Panzica.

An industrial-strength pressure washer uses water and glass pellets to blast away lead paint, dirt and debris from interior and exterior walls, while a lead neutralizer keeps contaminants at bay. A separate machine captures and recycles the water. New windows that comply with historic preservation requirements will soon be installed.

“I have never been so excited about seeing a construction elevator go up,” Rockford architect Gary Anderson said. “There is a sense of arrival, that this thing is finally on its way.”

Jeff Kolkey: 815-987-1374; jkolkey@rrstar.com@jeffkolkey