MOUNT CARROLL – A Rock Island nonprofit economic development company that played a major role in revitalizing a downtown Sterling building now plans to invest tens of millions of dollars in the historic but decaying Shimer College campus.
Economic Growth Corp. will spend more than $60 million over 5 to 7 years on Shimer Square, bringing housing, retail stores, art venues, restaurants, maybe a theater or community center – whatever residents identify as a need – to the heart of this quirky village of 1,700, which is about 20 minutes northeast of the burgeoning Thomson prison.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for all of us in northwest Illinois,” Mayor Carl Bates said at a presentation in October to the West Carroll School Board, which would be affected if a downtown TIF district is expanded to accommodate the project.
The company took title on the Shimer property on Dec. 31, 2018. Some of the 17 buildings on the 14-acre campus at 201 E. Seminary St. are 115 years old; all are in need of repair and restoration.
Initial projections call for more than 140 apartments, from studios to three-bedrooms, which Bureau of Prisons need for its growing workforce “like ... yesterday,” Bates said.
Some would be available to rent, others to buy.
The company, which calls itself Growth, plans to reuse some of the contents that remain, and historical items in dormitories, labs, the library and elsewhere are being inventoried and professionally curated.
To help pay for the mixed-use development, it is asking Mount Carroll to include Shimer Square in a tax increment financing district.
To do so, the city plans to extend its existing TIF, which will require the approval of all 8 or 9 taxing bodies, plus the state Legislature. City officials are in the process discussing the proposed expansion with the taxing bodies.
A TIF is an economic development incentive commonly employed for major projects.
In a TIF district, property tax revenue distributed to the taxing bodies – schools, townships, libraries, the city itself, etc. – is frozen at a certain level.
Improvements made then raise the value of the property, which in turn raises its property tax. The increase in tax revenue is returned to the developer for a fixed number of years; during that time, it is not shared with the taxing bodies.
At the moment, the vacant, quietly decaying site isn’t generating much in the way of tax revenue; if the project is realized, that would change markedly, not only through an increase in taxes, but also through the creation of jobs and an influx of retail and tourist revenue.
According to its website: “Growth’s goals and objectives for Shimer Square are to incorporate a dynamic mixture of uses while putting the historic properties back into a tax-generating status for the benefit of Mount Carroll residents, businesses, and visitors. The end result will also increase employment opportunities and engage area residents through programmed activities.”
The company also will seek a combination of state and federal tax credits, available based on the age of the buildings, and/or depending on their ultimate use.
It is in the process of lining up financing now; depending on how quickly that goes, it’s possible some renovation could begin later this year, Administration Director Beth Payne said Friday.
The number of buildings, their varying conditions and the sheer size of the site dictate that the work be done in phases; what kind of financing is obtained and when also will guide that process.
Growth also launched a 5-year capital campaign, with a goal of raising $2.5 million by 2025. Because it is a nonprofit, donations are tax-deductible.
U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, toured the campus Friday morning and was briefed on the project.
“Bringing this historic college campus back to life will be a great service to the growing community in Mount Carroll and throughout northwestern Illinois,” Bustos said in a statement.
Thanks to the revitalization of long-dormant Thomson prison, which brought an influx of workers, housing and other services are in great demand in Carroll County.
The now fully activated lockup at 1100 One Mile Road was bought by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2012 for $165 million; it spent several years on renovations and upgrades. There are just north of 1,000 inmates housed there today, up considerably from 170 in January 2019. At full capacity, it is expected to house 1,700.
There are about 400 employees, with openings for 200 more, mostly correctional officers.
The state finished building the state-of-the-art prison in 2001, but then it sat empty for more than a decade because Illinois didn’t budget enough money to open it.
Growth in Sterling
In Sterling, Growth has a history of success dating back more than a decade.
In 2016, it worked with the city officials and local development agency Sterling Today to redevelop the long-vacant second through fifth floors of the Lawrence Building, above the Whiteside County Courthouse at 101 E. Third St., into 20 affordable rental units. Its tenants make 60 percent or less than the area’s median income level.
Creation of the East Central Business TIF district was a key financing element. Growth was responsible for all project costs, and is being reimbursed in part by money raised in the new TIF. Other funding sources included low-income housing tax credits, state affordable housing tax credits, Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago, and Illinois attorney general national foreclosure settlement funds.
The $5.6 million project, the city’s first major downtown residential development, won the Illinois Housing Development Authority’s Jon Linfield Award for innovation and excellence in affordable housing in a rural community in May 2018.
Growth, which puts together financing for development projects on a national scale, also has worked with the city on several other housing initiatives since 2009, including the Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2, the Illinois Attorney General National Foreclosure Settlement Funds, and several other revitalization and repair programs for single-family homes.
Economic Growth Corp., a national nonprofit economic development agency, is trying to raise $2.5 million by 2025 to help pay for the redevelopment of Shimer Square in Mount Carroll.
To learn more about the multiyear, $60 million effort, call 309-794-671,1go to www.economicgrowthcorporation.com/shimer-square.html or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Donations, which are tax-deductible, should be marked as being for the Shimer Square project and sent to TBK Bank, 309 N. Clay St., Mount Carroll Historic District, IL 61053.
A HISTORIC TRADITION
Shimer College, founded in the mill town of Mount Carroll 167 years ago, in 1853, was an American Great Books college (one of only four in the nation; its core curriculum was a 200-book reading list) and one of the first academies for women.
Originally known as Mount Carroll Seminary, it was renamed Frances Shimer Academy of the University of Chicago in 1896; Frances Shimer Academy and Junior College in 1932; and Frances Shimer College in 1942.
It became Shimer College, a 4-year liberal arts college, in 1950. The college moved to Waukegan in 1978 because of of declining enrollment and financial problems.
The Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies was established there in 1979. Later renamed the Illinois Preservation Studies Center, it provided historical preservation training for museum professionals, librarians, and others.
Debt forced its board of directors to sell the IPSC program to Highland Community College in Freeport in March 2017, and the Campbell Center, the last remaining building in use, closed and the board disbanded that December.
Economic Growth Corp. obtained title to the property a year later, in December 2018.
The campus now is called Shimer Square, after a vote put to the citizens of the village resulted in a 94-94 tie between that and Shimer Woods. The tie was broken by a coin flip at Mount Carroll’s annual Mayfest, which Growth brought back to the campus in May after a 2-year absence.
The company’s goal is to maintain the old school’s historical flavor, through its architecture but also through artifacts left behind.
“The buildings have chalk on the chalkboards, test tubes on the science tables, hangers inside the dormitories, artwork on walls, books and county historical records in the library, a nearly deflated basketball in the basketball court, and historic tile one hundred percent intact surrounding the in-ground pool,” Growth says on its website, www.economicgrowthcorporation.com/shimer-square.html.
Many of those items will be incorporated into the new community, it says.