STERLING – Lawrence Brothers was once among the biggest employers in town. These days, the only action at the abandoned plant seems to be when fires break out.
About 5 p.m. Sunday, Sterling firefighters responded to a blaze at the four-story plant, which is along the Rock River, east of First Avenue.
The fire appeared to have started in the basement on the First Avenue side of the building, said Capt. Randy Ellmaker of the Sterling Fire Department. A police officer found an unlocked basement door near the fire, possibly where people may have entered, Ellmaker said.
Sterling police say they received a report of two boys running in the area around the time the fire started.
Ellmaker said he could see no "earthly reason" how the fire could have started other than arson, given that the building has no electricity.
Firefighters knocked out some second-floor windows facing First Avenue, letting out smoke. They later broke several windows on the fourth floor.
They put out the blaze in about a half-half hour. They got help from a number of departments, including Rock Falls and Milledgeville.
In March 2011, firefighters responded to a fire at the site blamed on arson.
Police arrested three teenagers, charging them with burglary and theft. They were seen leaving the building around the time of the fire after breaking in to steal scrap metal, but they were not charged with setting the fire.
Officials say the building has attracted homeless people and scavengers looking for copper wiring.
Earlier this year, the city received a report from an architectural firm about what it would take to develop the riverfront, including Lawrence Brothers and National, which is another abandoned factory across the street.
The project’s price tag would be $67 million, the firm said. The 10-year plan for the National and Lawrence buildings includes hotel space, loft apartments, a banquet center, condominiums and an interactive museum. Architects also envision a microbrewery restaurant, an indoor-outdoor farmers market and open civic space.