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Rock Falls targets green space project

Randy Balk
Randy Balk

ROCK FALLS – The economic development process is often likened to a puzzle, but the pieces are falling into place like dominoes in the RB&W District.

The riverfront plans gained momentum in May with two key announcements. During a May 6 council meeting, it was announced that the city had nailed down its long-sought anchor project for the district. The redevelopment agreement calls for the construction of a $6.1 million Holiday Inn Express & Suites at the east end of the riverfront. Construction of the 68-unit hotel is expected to begin soon.

City officials say the hotel will generate an estimated $2.3 million over the next 10 years – $1 million in property taxes that go into the TIF District, $700,000 in hotel/motel taxes, and $600,000 in city utilities revenue.

Then on May 28, the city learned it would receive a $200,000 federal grant to start removing the troublesome Limestone Building from the riverfront. The building was long considered to be the last remaining physical barrier to development of the area. The grant money will cover the assessment portion of the $600,000 demolition project that has already started.

City leaders realize that when the momentum builds, they have to run with it.

“It’s a process, and the hotel set up several other things,” said Randy Balk, executive director of the Rock Falls Community Development Corp. “The Limestone grant certainly helps, and when you have opportunities like this, you can’t slow up.”

Now the focus has turned to public green space development in the RB&W District – one of the projects that has been jumpstarted by the hotel agreement. The hotel is expected to generate TIF money for the East Second Street green space – one of several avenues the city is pursuing to fund the project. Although the cost estimates aren’t yet in, city officials say the taxpayers will be off the hook.

“The hotel ensured that the taxpayers won’t be hit up to finish the green space project,” Mayor Bill Wescott said. “As more development comes in around the hotel, more TIF money will be coming in.”

City Administrator Robbin Blackert and Wescott have been working with Willett, Hofmann & Associates to develop the green space concept and put some preliminary visuals on paper.

The early plans include an amphitheater with tiered stone walls, a splash pad or some other type of water feature, a skate park, scenic overlook piers, a bike and walk path, and restrooms.

Blackert said safety will be a major emphasis as the project takes shape.

“The skate park will be close to the road and very visible,” she said. “There would be live surveillance to the police department. It’s our hope, too, that having a hotel open 24 hours a day in the area cuts down on vandalism.”

A committee entrusted with refining the plans will be officially appointed at the next council meeting. The panel will include Blackert, Wescott, building inspector Mark Searing, two aldermen, a Willett, Hofmann representative, and four city residents.

“The committee will review the work Robbin and I have done,” Wescott said. “We’ll look at the recommendations and tweak things.”

Blackert has also been hard at work on the funding side of the project, recently submitting an application for an Illinois Department of Natural Resources grant. The Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development grant program is funded by the state real estate transfer tax. A 50 percent matching grant, up to $400,000, is available for development and renovation projects for parks and other green spaces. Recipients are usually announced in December.

“There was a tremendous amount of community support for this grant,” Blackert said. “We turned in 10 letters of support with our application.”

Blackert plans to go after other grants – there are some available that could be used just for the skate park. Corporate and organizational contributions, and donations for naming rights will also factor into the mix.

“We’re going after every opportunity we can find,” Blackert said.

Balk said the green space project is a huge selling point as RFCDF ramps up its development efforts in the area. The new design guidelines and facade grant program recently put in place will also make his job a bit easier.

“We’re really focusing our efforts on helping develop everything south of Second Street,” Balk said. “We have informally talked to some people, but no proposals will go out until the conceptuals are done.”

Office space, retail and restaurants could be part of the picture, but Balk says the proposals will give him a better idea of what developers want.

“I don’t think we have to rush,” Balk said. “A lot of hard work has gone into this, and we want to get the right elements in there.”

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