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College possible anchor for East State TIF

Friday, February 06, 2009  
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By Jeff Kolkey

RRSTAR.COM

Posted Feb 06, 2009 @ 09:24 PM

 

ROCKFORDEast State Street may not at first glance appear to be the epitome of urban decay that tax increment financing districts are designed to rescue.

 

But City Administrator Jim Ryan said he is already seeing the signs: Circuit City is closing, the Tumbleweeds restaurant has closed, Value City Furniture is vacant and the old K’s Merchandise building remains unused.

 

Not only that, but an East State Street Gateway TIF could be used to make Rockford College a true anchor in the corridor, connecting it with pathways that could make it more attractive to students and perhaps attracting future private investment there.

 

“I don’t want to wait for rock bottom before we can add a stimulus to the corridor,” Ryan said. “We would rather catch the problem early, before any more serious decline occurs.”

 

Considering a consultant

On Monday, city officials will discuss issuing a request for proposals from consultants to take a closer look at a 1.5-mile stretch of State Street from Alpine to Mulford roads and the neighborhoods in the vicinity to determine if it qualifies to become a tax increment financing district.

 

Such districts essentially freeze property taxes at today’s level for 23 years. As property values increase, the increment between the frozen tax level and the increased property value is held in escrow and used to invest in infrastructure and improvements.

 

It’s a way to attract private investment and economic development to blighted areas where otherwise there would be little or no interest.

 

Hiring a consultant that would examine the corridor and surrounding area to see if it can meet the list of criteria is the first step in creating the district. If eventually approved, it would be Rockford’s 24th TIF district, adjacent to an area known as the Miracle Mile that includes the East State and Alpine TIF.

 

Over the last five years, such districts have spurred 50 projects in Rockford totaling $146.8 million in private investment, said Reid Montgomery, director of community development.

 

Marketing the city

“Regardless of the budget situation and regardless of the economy, this is a community that needs to attract business,” Montgomery said. “Now is not the time to pull back investment in marketing the community. If we are not going to market the community, who is?”

 

City Legal Director Patrick Hayes said the consultant would consider the age of structures in the area, condition of infrastructure and whether the property value of the area is keeping pace

with the rest of the city.

 

Although officials said the goal is to boost the commercial corridor, it could also be used to reinvigorate Rockford College, Hayes said.

 

Because an educated work force is viewed as key to the future of Rockford, the four-year liberal arts college is being looked at to anchor the stretch of the gateway corridor.

 

Rockford College has put its stake in the ground on the east side of town and likely would want to reinvest there,” Hayes said. “TIF assistance might trigger a private partner to come in and help the college reinvest in itself.”

 

$4 million surplus

But the college, nestled on a 145-acre campus, no longer appears to be the cash-strapped institution it was a few years ago. Coming out of a period of financial instability, it ended with a $4 million surplus in fiscal year 2007.

 

There are no plans to sell land or to seek private development of the campus, said John McNamara, vice president for college development.

 

McNamara said the city is right to explore whether such a district could improve the corridor.

Just putting in sidewalks along State Street and making walking a viable and safe transportation alternative would be a huge improvement, McNamara said.

 

“What happens in the corridor, good or bad, has an impact on us,” he said. “To strengthen this section of the gateway corridor is viewed as a positive.”
 

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