By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – Although construction on the $87.5 million Embassy Suites & Rockford Convention Center will be finished next year, it won’t open right away.
“We are going to be hiring over 200 people to run this facility,” Gorman & Company Chairman Gary Gorman said. “There will be three different food service areas plus the conference center. That’s a lot of people to train, and we really want to work out the bugs before we present to our paying customers. We only get one chance to make a first impression. So, we are going to take a little more time and run through some trial processes – some dinners that nobody pays for just to make sure our people are really ready. Hilton has a concern about that, too. They don’t want somebody opening who isn’t fully ready to go.”
Gorman said construction is on schedule despite a setback caused by a March 5 scaffolding collapse which proved to be minor compared to what he went through to muster financing from a moving target of sources throughout a process that spanned about five years.
The first development agreement was approved on April 7, 2014. And when former Gov. Pat Quinn pledged $223 million to send commuter rail through Rockford for the first time in more than 30 years, city leaders were glad to build a train station and parking deck as part of the overall package. But it was not to be. By 2015, Quinn was out and so was the cash, leaving a significant hole in the development.
Meanwhile, Gorman’s go of it wasn’t any easier. Subsequent trips to China to woo EB-5 investors commenced, even as the fate of the federal visa program teetered, and lenders became leery of a complicated capital stack. There was no guarantee historic tax credits would be part of the deal either. And when aldermen decided to the revisit their $22 million commitment, things were delayed even further.
Rockford will now spend $12.5 million on the adjoining convention center, a plan met with blowback from east-side hotel and restaurant owners who opined that by owning part of the downtown facility, the city would be in competition with an the already established sector. Gorman said he understands their concern but he’s confident that the development will benefit everyone.
“I think we will see that a rising tide will sail boats,” he said. “I truly believe this facility will attract events that otherwise would not have come to Rockford.”
Gorman said while the 13-story Embassy Suites is certainly a linchpin, he does not expect its 160 rooms to only affect downtown. He says once the hotel opens and the UWHealth Sports Factory, along with the BMO Harris Bank Center, expanded City Market and other attractions fully factor into the equation, there will be a need for even more rooms throughout the city.
“There will be spill over benefits from what this facility brings to Rockford.”
Tom McNamara was mayor-elect when the 2017 deal was approved and one of seven aldermen who voted for it. The measure was one of his last orders of business before taking the reins from Larry Morrissey.
“I am thrilled with the progress Gorman is making,” McNamara said. “The hotel will be something that our entire community hasn’t seen in a long time and our downtown may have never seen. It’s a facility that everyone in Rockford can be proud of. And it won’t be for just Rockford to enjoy, but tens of thousands of visitors.”
Joining McNamara with “yes” votes were Alds. Ann Thompson-Kelly, D-7, Karen Elyea, D-11, John Beck, R-12, Linda McNeely, D-13, Jamie Getchius, R-2, and Jeanne Oddo, D-8. Elyea, Getchius and Oddo were replaced by Tuffy Quinonez (D), Jonathan Logemann (D) and Karen Hoffman (D) respectively, and were sworn in April 30.
Kevin Frost, R-4, Frank Beach, R-10, Venita Hervey, D-5, Joseph Chiarelli, R-14, Teena Newburg, I-9, and Pam Connell, R-6, voted “no.” Tim Durkee, R-1, was absent. Morrisey cast the tie-breaking tally.
Newburg was defeated by Bill Rose (D), while Connell relinquished her seat when she ran for mayor in 2016. Democrat Natavius Ervins now represents the Sixth Ward.
Frost voted for the project in 2014 but dissented last year for a reason similar to why McNeely balked at the first deal even though the hotel is in her ward. McNeely said she didn’t like that that price tag “went from $10 million to $70 million.” Frost praised Gorman’s $52 million pledge the fist time around but called the last package the “worst negotiated deal I have ever seen,” and said Rockford is drastically overpaying for its portion of the facility.
Meantime, Gorman stood by his commitment even though he negotiated an option to sell the Amerock/Ziock Building back to the city for $250,000 if the development flopped. But that was then. The University of Wisconsin Law School graduate is now “87-million-dollars-sure” the hotel will be successful with 65-percent occupancy and an average room rate of around $158. He also gives Morrissey credit for being just as devoted.
“He put in his own private time into it. It was a personal investment Larry made and I want to thank him.”
Morrissey praised Gorman’s team, McNamara, former City Administrator Jim Ryan and current City Administrator Todd Cagnoni.
“They all worked tirelessly with our city council to get the project to this point,” Morrissey said earlier this year. “I’m extremely proud to have been able to work with Mayor McNamara, whose leadership was instrumental in securing Council approval of the City’s partnership with Gorman.”
Windows are expected to be installed this week while crews break ground on the convention center.
“The convention center will be finished at the same time the hotel is finished,” Gorman said. “They both have to be ready go at the same time, both in terms of the facility and the people.”
The project is being financed by CitiBank, Twain Financial Partners, Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust Company, Associated Bank and Rockford Local Development Corporation.