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Local Editorials

OUR VIEW: Hope is resurrected for Lawrence building

The city must stay focused on its commitment to create a riverfront gateway residents can be proud of

In May 2018, Sterling Mayor Skip Lee sent a message conveying that the city needed to become more proactive with the industrial blight on its riverfront.

The Lawrence Brothers building is not the gateway a city wants to project when pursuing economic development opportunities or trying to fight the battle against rural population loss. Residents’ frustration grows from the juxtaposition of a hotel and park that has been built across the river.

The city had unsuccessfully applied for a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields Assessment Grant for 8 years, and until more was known about what needed to be cleaned up, the fate of the building couldn’t be decided.

“We need to figure out what’s in there and what needs to be done,” Lee told the Daily Gazette. “We can’t keep waiting – we have to at least find a way to get the process going ourselves.”

So while the city continued to apply for EPA grants, it decided to take matters into its own hands. When nearly $500,000 from an old state revolving loan program was released without restrictions to the city, $125,000 was used to get the assessment work restarted at the Lawrence site.

The assessment results are in and the city seems to be convinced that the cleanup is manageable and the building has great redevelopment potential. A few developers are interested, making it critical to keep moving ahead.

The city took a big leap Monday when the council approved spending $75,100 to do a marketing and feasibility study for the Lawrence and Stanley National buildings. Gary W. Anderson Architects of Rockford will lead the study, while bringing in Hunden Strategic Partners to identify the best uses for the building.

Anderson is no stranger to Sterling’s riverfront – his firm did a master plan for the area many years ago. The firm specializes in adaptive reuse and historic preservation projects, doing much of the planning that has gone into the ongoing transformation of Rockford’s riverfront district.

The process in Sterling stalled many years ago, but the city must make sure that doesn’t happen again. Several realities have changed since the master plan was done. The economy is much improved and the availability of Historic Tax Credits for brownfields developers in Illinois could be a game-changer. The continuing work on the Rock Falls side of the riverfront could also help lure investment dollars.

The council received another important message at its Monday meeting. An EPA webinar on brownfields redevelopment reiterated that time kills all deals. Time also makes all projects much more expensive.

Brownfields cleanup and redevelopment is an incredibly difficult and costly process – each city’s experience is unique to them. The time has come to do whatever it takes to keep the process moving along. There is developer interest and Anderson has a long list of more brownfields redevelopment specialists he has worked with.

It takes a great deal of resolve to see projects of this scale through. It will take unwavering commitment and focus from several city administrations, but the potential benefits are enormous as is the cost of kicking the can down the road again. It’s time to strike while the iron is hot.

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