The City of Rockford — Council, staff and area residents — have been working on the idea of bringing an event center to the Riverside Park area for nearly a decade.
This proposed project has gained, and lost, momentum with the unpredictable current of economic changes that saw housing costs, and builds, soar and plummet. In the last couple of years, though, as things appear to be leveling out, the idea of building a facility that could house various sized groups for gatherings and celebrations has gotten a fresh life breathed into it and is closer to becoming a reality than in past attempts. It is, however, still on the “fence”, with the council weighing its viability as charged: cost-versus-benefit.
There is little doubt that the proposed event center would be a draw for social gatherings like wedding receptions, reunions and off-site corporate get-togethers. In its most current rendition, the building features windows and dormers that would take advantage of the natural lighting of the proposed site and scenic outlook on a very pretty city park with the Crow River running through it. This is a unique atheistic aspect that neighboring communities, which have event centers, cannot claim. Cities that have solid bookings for their venues.
The center would, however, be a city amenity taxpayers would support. Though operating costs would be largely offset by rental revenues and associated charges, building costs would rest on the city.
The question then becomes: Is Rockford ready to take on the cost of this amenity? It’s a tough question, and one that’s stalled this project in the past.
What’s known is that the Rockford Lions Club constructed a building several decades ago in Riverside Park that has served as a community hall. It’s used on a regular basis, but has a capacity of 80, which limits its use for the kind of events many would like the city in the running for. One example is, ironically, the Rockford Lions Club. The club’s annual Greenback Dinner, its biggest fundraiser of the year, is held at the Rockford Township Hall, which can accommodate it.
Also, the existing building is deemed in poor shape and will be retired in 2014.
On the other end of things is the expected cost to property owners. The estimated cost of the project is $1.4 million. This represents about $90 a year for homeowners of properties valued at $200,000. A half million dollar commercial property can expect to pay an additional $418 in property taxes annually for the 15-year life of the bond.
This comes on the tail of a recently passed Rockford Area School bond referendum for $27 million to improve facilities, which includes district residents of Rockford, Greenfield, Corcoran as contributors.
Adding a 300-seat event center could be considered an apt, astute move by the Rockford Council to get in step with the momentum the district is flaming. Improved school facilities, and ball fields, could help put the sleepy little community on the map. Strike while hot?
If checkbooks weren’t required in the decision-making, it would seem an easy one to make. But some Rockford Councilors are concerned that a hike in property taxes to cover the building’s costs might pose a hardship for some residents.
At the open house the city hosted on this issue April 30, the question of capacity was raised. Would it be smart for the council to consider a 200-person facility with the option of “adding on” in the future.
The cost of a smaller building would be less, but the cost per square foot would be higher if an addition was needed.
Former Rockford Mayor, Mike Beyer, read a prepared statement at the open house. He said that he supported the concept when it was in the half-million dollar range.
A little background: in 2008 a concept that included an event center and the relocation of city offices, brick and mortar style, came in at over $2 million. The council passed. The idea of an event center resurfaced a couple of years later, and the idea of a pre-constructed metal building seemed to be a potential cost savior. Engineering and architectural fee pushed the estimate up to its $1.4 million dollar price tag. This may actually be the bottom dollar bid on this project.
So, the question remains. Do the property owners in Rockford want an event center on the city owned land adjacent to Riverside Park?
The turnout at the open house was light, but Rockford City Councilors are available to hear comments from residents before moving, either way, on this project. They can reached by email at their addresses listed at cityofrockford.org/city-departments/city-council.