The Midtown District of Rockford is experiencing a rebirth as developers rescue its lovely old buildings from years of disrepair. Paul Anthony Arco leads a tour of this neighborhood where a new community is thriving.
Joan Sage was comfortable living in Boone County for nearly 30 years. She had plenty of space, great neighbors and trees. “I had no intention of moving,” says Sage, manager of government and regulatory affairs for Comcast.
But a funny thing happened. Sage was attending a meeting at Katie’s Cup, a coffee shop located on Seventh Street in the heart of Rockford’s Midtown District. After the meeting, community volunteer Brad Roos gave the group a tour of the building. Roos and his wife, Sue, live in a condo over the coffee shop. The tour left a strong impression on Sage.
“I was driving home and thought, ‘I need to move,’” she recalls. So, earlier this year, Sage downsized many of her belongings, packed up the rest, and said goodbye to the country for urban living.
“I felt it was the right time,” she says. “I remember reading a story that said if we want these neighborhoods to change, we need to live in them. I believe in what’s going on with Transform Rockford. What we’re seeing is a concerted effort moving in the same direction. We all need to do our part. I feel like this is part of my contribution to making things better. Living above a coffee shop is the greatest thing on earth. More importantly, I feel like the Midtown District is a gem that’s being shined.”
What was once a downtrodden part of Rockford is coming back, albeit slowly. But slow and steady wins the race, as Roos likes to say. Neighbors in the Midtown District have made great strides improving the area’s image, working with police to reduce crime and improve safety. They’ve also worked with the city to improve the streetscape. Many lovely old buildings have been purchased, refurbished and given new purpose.
Still, there’s work to be done. Many storefronts remain empty. The area is in need of a grocery store, more restaurants and specialty shops, but most business owners agree Midtown is much improved from where it was a short time ago.
“There’s a renaissance in this part of the community,” says Tom Myers, vice president of strategy and marketing for SwedishAmerican Health System. “We’re starting to see a rebirth and regrowth in both retail business and some residential areas. Things are much more positive.”
The Midtown District is bounded roughly from East State Street to Railroad Avenue, and from 11th Street to Kishwaukee Street. The district encompasses many historical buildings and many longstanding businesses, including Nicholson’s Hardware, Guler Appliance and SwedishAmerican Health System.
Among recent upgrades to the Midtown District are new street lighting and landscaping. Streetscape banners have been hung and the Midtown District Association, a collaboration of neighborhood businesses, is undergoing a rebranding, complete with a new logo and marketing materials.
“The Midtown District is village-like,” says Roos, the former executive director of ZION Development, a nonprofit Christian neighborhood development organization formed as an outreach program of Zion Lutheran Church, which spearheaded the purchase of the Lantow building 15 years ago. “It has businesses, residences, churches and schools. We’ve got it all. That makes for an interesting neighborhood with an interesting mix of people. You have people who live here, work here, worship here or come down here to shop and dine.”
“There’s so much happening right now,” says Dori Kearney, development director for the Midtown District Association. “We’ve been working on this for years, and now we’re finally getting over the hump. Everyone is working together. It’s exciting.”
The increased activity is no accident.
“People might say it happened by magic, but the truth is that it’s the result of a tremendous amount of effort by groups like the Midtown District Association,” says Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey. “There have been a number of quality private-sector projects in downtown east and west that are further ahead, but Midtown is catching up. What has really been a catalyst has been the addition of a state historic tax credit through our State River Edge Community designation that can be combined with the federal historic tax credit to help developers obtain the financing they need to find a project. Midtown has a great collection of historical buildings that are primed for future development.”
The Golden Years
About 100 years ago, the Midtown District was a destination point for Swedish immigrants and many social, business and economic opportunities grew around them. Names like C.V. Olson Clothing Co., Freburg’s Pharmacy, Anderson’s Professional Pharmacy Drugs and Swanson’s Confectionary were synonymous with Midtown shopping, as were names like Martin Gustafson, Mincemoyer Jewelry and Lillian’s Fashions. During the mid-20th century, the annual Seventh Street Festival brought people to Midtown in droves for carnival rides, games and sweet treats.
“The storefronts were filled with clothing stores, restaurants and drug stores,” says Darwyn Guler, owner of Guler Appliance, a neighborhood fixture for 80 years. “People got paid and then came down here shopping. Stores used to be open every night until 9 p.m.”
There was a time when the neighborhood was referred to commonly as Swedes Town.
“It was flush with people and businesses,” says Kearney, who moved from California to Rockford in 2001. These buildings were filled with people who lived upstairs and worked downstairs. People have fond memories of what it used to be. They know it’s not going to be that, but there’s a heart for Midtown. People want to see it come back and be something significant again.”
When other companies relocated from Midtown to the east side of town, there was never any reason for Guler Appliance to depart its 100-year-old building at 227 Seventh St., says Guler.
“We’re a destination and we’re easy to get to,” says Guler, who’s served on the boards of various Seventh Street associations and currently sits on the Midtown District Association board. “We own our business, property and building. It’s still the center of Rockford and it’s easy to get to. There’s plenty of parking. We support ourselves and support our neighbors. After 80 years, people know we’re on the corner of Second Avenue and Seventh Street.”
Another staple of the Midtown District is Benson Stone Co., 1100 11th St., founded in 1930 by Martin O. Benson and M. Howard Benson. The father and son started out in the Indiana cut-limestone business, in a shop on 10th Street and 10th Avenue in Rockford. Howard D. Benson joined the business in the 1950s; his son, Andy Benson, is the fourth generation of ownership. Today, the Bensons’ company is known for selling furniture, flooring, lighting, home decor, fireplaces, landscape materials and barbecue grills.
Back in 1998, when Benson Stone operated a storefront on East State, the company made a big leap and bought the vacant Rockford Standard Furniture building on 11th Street. Benson Stone spent two years renovating the 130,000 square-foot complex, which offices a four-story showroom and the Hearth Rock Cafe, a popular spot for breakfast and lunch.
“Seeing this location become what it is today has been very gratifying,” says Andy Benson. “We have so much more display space than before. It’s brought us awareness, and we’ve become a destination. We’re encouraged by what’s happening here in the Midtown District.”
Since 1945, the Nicholson name has been synonymous in Rockford with the hardware business. Nicholson Hardware was started by Enoch Nicholson and his sons, Melvin and Ahlex Nicholson. The trio had worked for another local store, Skandia Hardware Co., before coming together to open their own business at 210 Seventh St.
“It had a general store type of feel,” says Paul Nicholson, Melvin’s grandson and now the principal owner of the store. “They sold hardware, hand tools, bicycles, sleds – you name it.” In 1972, the store moved to its current location at 1131 Second Ave.
About 60 percent of Nicholson’s customers are contractors or commercial accounts, while the rest are do-it-yourselfers. Regular customers include government entities such as the City of Rockford and the Rockford Park District. “It’s important to be centrally located,” says co-owner Scott Nicholson. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
In the early 2000s, SwedishAmerican Health System underwent a $32 million campus expansion and renovation project that provided residents with greater programs and more services. The project included a new main entrance and emergency department expansion, new outpatient care areas and renovated space for the hospital’s heart program. It was the first phase in what has become a $340 million investment in the hospital’s flagship Midtown campus.
“It was part of a long-term plan,” says Tom Myers of SwedishAmerican Health System. “In the late 1990s we asked ourselves how we could meet the needs of Rockford and our patients. We formed a community committee, listened and then developed a creative plan to expand our 30-acre footprint in the heart of the city. Our plan, which involved rerouting Charles Street, was supported in part by the addition of two major medical office buildings, which remain on the tax rolls.”
In addition, the SwedishAmerican Foundation’s Home Ownership Program helped revitalize an 81-block area surrounding the hospital campus. Since 2000, the Foundation has committed more than $6 million to transform the Midtown District from predominantly rental-occupied homes to an owner-occupied neighborhood. The Foundation has rehabbed 24 existing homes and made 16 of them available for resale to SwedishAmerican employees – at a discount price. Nearly 200 additional home sites have been impacted through the Foundation via a 50/50 Program that assists homeowners with projects such as driveways and porches. In 2006, the Foundation was awarded a community impact award by the Midtown District Association.
“We care for our community and believe community extends beyond the walls of our hospital and clinics,” says Myers. “Our goal was to create a healthier neighborhood. We want to serve as a catalyst for change. There’s always more work to be done, but when we see growth in Midtown, we’re proud that we’ve had a part in that.”
In 2011, the Rockford Public Schools purchased AMCORE Bank Building in the Midtown District for $1.8 million, and moved in a year later. RPS wasn’t actively looking, but found the opportunity too good to pass up.
“We weighed the pros and cons,” says Earl Dotson Jr., chief of communication and community engagement. “We were going to have to spend roughly the same amount to renovate our old space. We thought it was a good deal.”
The former AMCORE Building was exactly what RPS needed. For starters, it’s given the district’s 200-member staff ample room to hold meetings and trainings. “We couldn’t do that in our other building,” says Dotson. “It’s centrally located, and we’ve paid off the building in less than three years. It’s a wonderful asset.”
In order to attract business, the City of Rockford has what Todd Cagnoni, director of community and economic development, describes as cost reduction tools at its disposal: tax increment financing, river’s edge tax credits, and state and federal historic rehabilitation credit.
“At the end of the day, the Midtown District and other corridors are dependent on the involvement of the businesses,” he says. “They have the opportunity to lead efforts. When you look at the Midtown District, they have been strong leaders in advocating for public infrastructure, and helping the City when we’re working with private developers on redevelopment agreements.”
One person with a strong interest in the future of the Midtown District is Justin Fern, founder and president of Urban Equity Properties, a Rockford-based development firm. Fern owns 600,000 square feet of property in the downtown area.
“I’ve seen a remarkable transformation in the Midtown District since 2006,” he says. “This is a rebirth, but we still have a lot of work to do. We need some critical pieces downtown, like a grocery store, more boutique clothing stores and more restaurants. Is it a lot of work? Yes. Can we do it? Of course we can.”
Now, Fern is working on a $3.5 million rehab project in the 400 block of Seventh Street. When it’s all complete, the Midtown Lofts will include seven retail stores, 14 upstairs residential apartments and parking. Fern acquired the property in 2014 and recently began construction. The first phase will include four loft apartments and two retail spaces. The second phase will include 10 loft apartments, five retail stores and garages. The entire project should be completed by the end of 2016.
Fern plans to rent Midtown lofts for less than $1,000 a month; the lofts will include exposed brick, timber, hardwood floors, modern appliances and private decks. Fern has met with plenty of people interested in both retail and residential space.
“There are artists who want to lease retail and live and work in the same building,” he says. “It’s the same type of feel that was down here 80 years ago. We’re offering a price point that will appeal to artists, bartenders and young professionals who want to live in the Midtown District.”
Fern is excited to join staples such as Guler Appliance and SwedishAmerican. “Those are the pioneers of this neighborhood,” he says. “We’re excited to be part of transforming Midtown. We’ll be working with those businesses and organizations to better the neighborhood.”
Another prime residence is the Lantow Lofts, 502 Seventh St., an energy-efficient three-story commercial and residential building. Constructed in 1895, the building was popular with Swedish craftsmen who came to Rockford to work in the furniture industry. Back then, it had 12 efficiency apartments on the second and third floors, with two ground-floor businesses, Lundholm Drug Store and a shoe store.
Eventually, the city’s furniture industry dried up and the Seventh Street area lost its appeal. In 1995, Bruce Lantow sold the building his grandfather had built and it fell into disrepair. In 2000, Zion Development Corporation paid $125,000 for the building and began a $6 million renovation that took eight years to complete.
These days, the Lantow Lofts houses seven upscale condos and Katie’s Cup coffee shop, a popular Midtown spot for residents and working professionals.
“This is one of the greenest commercial buildings in Winnebago County,” says Roos, who was executive director of Zion for nearly 25 years before retiring last year.
The Lantow Building has solar panels on the roof, a solar thermal water heating and cooling system and a geothermal building heating system. The tiles in the entryways of the Lantow building are made of recycled glass, and the carpet in the hallways is made from recycled carpet fibers. The loft-style condos include high ceilings, energy-efficient windows, a parking garage, gas fireplaces and a 4,000-square-foot landscaped garden deck.
Up the street, another success story is the 90-year-old building at 201 Seventh St. that Lee Schreiner bought 10 years ago. Once home to a furniture and flooring store, an electric company, and more recently a liquor store, the building is now home to Rockford Urban Ministries and the Just Goods Fair Trade Marketplace, as well as six upstairs apartments that Schreiner has refurbished.
Schreiner is a retired high school science teacher and adjunct physics professor at Rockford University who is passionate about the environment. He wrote and was awarded a $12,000 grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to install 28 solar panels on the roof of his building. Schreiner says the solar panels will cut electricity consumption in the building by about one-third.
“We want to see these historic areas, which are incredibly important to Rockford, thrive again,” he says. “I like the idea of having people live here, shop here and dine here again.”
Just Goods sells a variety of items including jams, jewelry, accessories and home decor. The store includes an art gallery, community room and space for Friday-evening concerts that host local folk, jazz, classical, country and alternative rock musicians.
“Being on a corner of Seventh Street has been good for our business,” says manager Winniy Chin. “A gift store really needs people to slow down, get out of their cars, and start window shopping. It’s the windows that invite people inside.”
Last October, Brent Hughes, president of 222 Seventh Street LLC, bought the former Nicholson Gift store at 222 Seventh St. and relocated his parent’s business, Northwest Quarterly Magazine, there. The magazine’s office occupies the first two floors of the building; the third floor has been converted into residential space.
Hughes purchased the building for $53,000. Under a development agreement with the city, 222 Seventh Street LLC spent $160,000 to rehabilitate 7,900 square-foot building, which had been vacant for at least 15 years. Hughes is eligible to receive up to 45 percent in historic tax credits.
“We are paying the same price here as we were for our previous location of 1,400 square feet,” Hughes says. “In the Midtown District, you’re getting fantastic architecture and buildings with character. You can’t find that just anywhere.”
Hughes is no stranger to downtown. He lives in the area and frequents local restaurants and businesses. He was inspired to pursue the Midtown building after hearing news of other potential projects in the neighborhood.
“Northwest Quarterly Magazine has a positive voice in the community,” he says. “I knew if we relocated to the Midtown District, it would have a positive effect on the area. Since we’ve moved here, I’ve heard from many people who are considering a similar move.”
The Midtown District Association is also working hard to bring visitors to the area, thanks to some creative special events.
Midtown takes part in the biannual Art Scene, a Rockford Area Arts Council event where local artists create “pop-up” art displays in area venues. The association created “Midtown Does Art Scene” to draw crowds into places like Katie’s Cup, Just Goods, Emmanuel Lutheran Church and Shelter Care Ministries. During the holiday season, volunteers make three-dimensional decorative displays that are placed in the windows of empty storefronts. Association director Kearney hopes to get more area businesses on board this year.
For the past two years, the biggest boost to the area has been the Midtown Ethnic Parade & Festival, which is held in late August. The event includes a parade, children’s activities, international food and craft booths, and a beer garden. Most of the activities are held on the street and in the parking lots of the Rockford Public Schools headquarters and BMO Harris Bank. Other highlights include a carving booth, a walking labyrinth and a genealogy area staffed by the Rockford Public Library historians and other genealogy experts. A parade starts at the Rockford Public Library and ends in Midtown. More than 2,000 people turned out for this year’s event.
More than 30 ethnic groups are represented: Swedish, Serbian, Italian, Polish, African-American, Filipino, German, Vietnamese, Scottish/Irish and Latino, to name a few. “It’s a celebration, really,” says Kearney. “It’s an opportunity to learn about the diverse groups of people who make up our community. This is who Rockford is. We should embrace it.”
More Good News
Marty Barker has come full circle. He started cooking at Peterson’s Restaurant on Seventh Street when he was 13. He went on to open his own restaurant, Marty’s Family Restaurant, at 211 Seventh Street. For the past 23 years he operated Morning Glory Family Restaurant in leased space at 408 Seventh Street. Now, he’s investing in the Midtown District by purchasing the building at 211 Seventh Street; the restaurant will open by mid-November.
“I’ve been here my whole life,” Barker says. “I know everyone here, and I’m excited about the future in the Midtown District. There have been many changes, but I feel like things are really coming around.”
The good news keeps coming. The United Way is also working with Midtown residents through its Strong Neighborhoods Initiative.
For the past year, United Way’s Community Impact Team has visited with residents, businesses and agencies in the Midtown neighborhood to assess needs of the residents. United Way community impact managers and volunteers also participate in area events such as the ethnic parade and festival and have visited Crusader Community Health, Nelson Elementary School, Beyer Elementary School, Kishwaukee Elementary School and Patriot’s Gateway Community Center.
United Way has also teamed up with the city, SwedishAmerican Health System and other partners to form the city’s first Strong Neighborhood Homes, an attempt to form connections with residents and reduce crime. The first house, located about a block north of the hospital at 1233 Revell Ave., was purchased and renovated by SwedishAmerican Foundation. A second home, 908 Eighth Ave., was purchased and renovated by Zion Development and will open in November with hours for community police officers and social service programming.
“The goal is to understand residents and their needs when it comes to education, income and health,” says Ashley Burks, community impact manager and marketing manager for United Way. “What I like about Midtown are the people who may not be engaged with organizations or companies, but are still concerned about their neighborhood. On every block I visit, I find a group of residents who are dedicated to making sure it’s a prosperous environment.”
The City of Rockford recently brightened up the Seventh Street corridor. This summer, crews installed street lights, removed traffic signals and installed devices and streetscape features such as bump-outs on Seventh Street between Second and Sixth avenues.
City officials met with area residents and businesses to get input on what was needed. The city has replaced two dozen dual-head street light poles that were installed in the late 1960s with more than 50 single-head LED light poles. The cost of the project is $2 million.
“The Midtown District wanted a more shopping-friendly community,” says Jeremy Carter, city traffic engineer. “Putting in bump-outs and lights will definitely help with that. Any time an investment like this is made in a district or neighborhood, it’s a good thing.”
Kearney at the Midtown District Association gets calls every week from potential suitors who are interested renting in empty buildings, and she gets positive comments from people who visit the area as well. “Every new business that comes down, people notice,” she says. “And it brings in younger people. That energizes the area.”
It has reinvigorated people like Roos, who has spent years working, living and volunteering in the Midtown District. “I like being in an established neighborhood versus an urban sprawl,” he says. “I want to do something every day to beautify the neighborhood. This has been a true team effort. There have been so many shoulders to the wheel. For example, I’m so impressed with the City of Rockford and how they have listened and responded to the interests of the neighborhood. There is ample evidence that things are improving and going in the right direction. As long as that continues, we will see visual and unseen improvements. It just takes time.”
One of the keys will be Justin Fern’s redevelopment of the 400 block. “We need more of those big projects to continue,” Cagnoni says. “It furthers that momentum and encourages investors to come here. Midtown is the up-and-coming district when it comes to redevelopment.”
Strengthening core downtown areas like Midtown is good for the entire Rockford region.
“Strong cities have strong downtowns,” says Mayor Morrissey. “As long as we stay focused and keep investing in quality infrastructure, we’re going to see ongoing growth from the private sector. Midtown District has a different feel these days, and that’s a good thing.”
“There’s something special going on in the Midtown District,” he says. “All it takes is for people with good ideas and the willingness to see them through. I know many people who want a place where you can park your car, get out and walk the whole day. That place can be the Midtown District.”