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Local

Downtown Sterling revitalization milestone

Community opens door to residential component

STERLING – A mighty swing of the sledgehammer into a symbolic door officially ushered in a new way of thinking about the city's downtown.

Mayor Skip Lee left his mark Thursday on the door emblazoned with the new Lawrence Lofts logo. The door prop was used at the community groundbreaking ceremony held Thursday at the Lawrence Building.

Floors two through five of the building have been vacant since the 1960s. The apartments will range from 484 to 780 square feet. There will be one-bedroom, one-bathroom options, and two-bedroom, two-bathroom units. Rent ranges from $215 to $740 a month.

While the event kicked off a 10-month construction period for the $5.6 million affordable housing project, the celebration was about several links in the city's partnership chain with developer Rock Island Economic Growth Corp. The chain represents the nonprofit's comprehensive approach to city revitalization.

"Our relationship with the city goes back 7 years, and looking back, it's quite impressive what's been accomplished through partnerships," said Brian Hollenback, president and CEO of the corporation.

Through those partnerships, $3.6 million has been invested in the community before the Lawrence Lofts project. The Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 provided nearly $2.8 million for rehabilitation and demolition efforts in at-risk neighborhoods. The city earned $1 million from the sale of rehabbed properties.

The city has participated in several other housing programs through the Economic Growth Corporation. Through the Blight Reduction Program, the city has received $455,000 to demolish 13 vacant eyesores. Eight of those structures have been taken down.

The mayor said many people have put in countless hours on the Lawrence Lofts project, citing Sterling Today, Greater Sterling Development Corporation, Sterling City Council, City Manager Scott Shumard, and his predecessor, Amy Viering.

"Today is one of those days I get to bask in the glow of everyone else's work," Lee said. "Our partnership with Rock Island Growth is one of the best things the city ever did."

The Lawrence Lofts project is considered a milestone in the city's downtown and riverfront revitalization efforts. It is hoped that adding affordable housing within walking distance to downtown services and amenities brings the economic benefits of a mixed-use approach.

"Adding a residential component to the downtown is huge," said Janna Groharing, executive director of Sterling Main Street and Sterling Today. "There is a lot of momentum building in the downtown – we've seen five new businesses open in the last few weeks."

Hollenback said a unique feature of Lawrence Lofts is the availability of a veterans housing subsidy.

"The VA office is just a few blocks away from this project," Hollenback said. "One of the definitions of community is taking care of your own."

Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation put together financing for the $5.6 million project. The money will come from a complex mix that included the Illinois Housing Development Authority, low-income housing tax credits, state affordable housing tax credits, Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago, Affordable Housing Program, the Sterling Today facade program, Sauk Valley Bank, and the Illinois Attorney General's National Foreclosure Settlement Funds.

The city contributed by setting up a tax increment financing rebate program. Sterling Today took on some of the predevelopment costs, and provided a $50,000 grant to be used as a rental subsidy for two units set aside for very low-income households. The nonprofit development group also contributed a $100,000 facade grant for exterior improvements to the building.

Hollenback said the project will make an economic impact on several fronts. Included were increasing the tax base, job creation, the addition of residents to the downtown, and saving taxpayers from the cost of redeveloping the deteriorating upper floors of the building. From the county's perspective, it allows that entity to keep ownership of the first floor and continue to have a presence in downtown Sterling.

"Rock Island Growth began its multi-family downtown revitalization efforts in 2001, and since then has leveraged more than $170 million in housing activity," Hollenback said. "Through these efforts, we have witnessed firsthand how these projects serve as catalysts for additional downtown revitalization."

POWER OF PARTNERSHIPS

During its 7-year partnership, the city and the Rock Island Growth Corp., millions of dollars have been invested in a comprehensive redevelopment plan through the following programs:

• Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2: $2.8 million

• Illinois Attorney General's National Foreclosure Settlement Funds: $285,000

• Housing Trust Fund Emergency Program: $22,000

• Housing Trust Fund Purchase-Rehabilitation Program: $65,533 -–$1.6 million generated in real estate sales

• Blight Reduction Program: $455,000

• Homebuyer Education/Financial Counseling – Utilized by 33 homebuyers

• Lawrence Lofts: $5.6 million

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