Hotel, offices, tech center pitched for Rockford News Tower

Isaac Guerrero

ROCKFORD — The iconic Register Star News Tower would be turned into an extended-stay hotel, premium office space and a Rock Valley College advanced technology center as part of a downtown renewal pitch made Wednesday to Rockford Chamber of Commerce leaders. Those making the pitch: SupplyCore CEO and developer Peter Provenzano, Mayor Tom McNamara and Paul Gaier, regional vice president for Gannett, the newspaper’s parent company. The trio says that planting the tech center at the News Tower would fill what is now a glaring void in the city’s urban core — a higher education provider that would help sustain the region’s workforce, draw more people downtown and improve the city’s educational attainment. “We really believe that we need to embrace the live, work, learn and play model downtown — to encompass all the assets that downtown has to offer,” McNamara told members of the chamber’s government affairs committee. Chamber CEO Einar Forsman said he was impressed with the vision for the News Tower laid out by McNamara, Provenzano and Gaier. He will talk to his committee members, he said, and decide how the chamber may be able to help move things forward. “The key takeaway for me was we’ve got to get the parties back to the table and start having some good conversations about the proposals and what options might exist,” Forsman said. “But clearly there’s a challenge in just getting that discussion going. It’s important right now just to get the parties in the same room.” The college has pledged to spend up to $9.2 million to develop the ATC — wherever it is built. But Rock Valley board members aren’t sold on the News Tower, much less the idea of more public dialogue on where the ATC should be built. For months, RVC board chairman Patrick Murphy has negotiated behind the scenes with officials at Chicago Rockford International Airport about a Kishwaukee Street site owned by the airport where the ATC could be built. Village administrators in Machesney Park have suggested that the board establish the workforce training center at the former Machesney Park Mall adjacent to Village Hall at Illinois 251 and Machesney Road. Murphy said he has entertained offers to establish the ATC in Boone County, too. Murphy said he’s not keen on participating in a “community conversation” called for by Transform Rockford and others, including former mayor Larry Morrissey. Transform Rockford has even offered to a facilitate an online dialogue between college trustees and the public, given Illinois’ stay-at-home directive amid the coronavirus pandemic. Rock Valley board member Bob Trojan said in an email to the Register Star that he’s open to such a conversation, though he’s “not sure what ‘open dialogue’ means” and he’d “prefer to listen to specific proposals from any of the six counties that RVC serves.” Provenzano said the News Tower’s downtown location — two blocks east of the city’s public bus terminal — makes it far more accessible for students than the airport site on Kishwaukee Street. The News Tower is closer to restaurants, shops and other amenities that would benefit from a nearby critical mass of college students. “We’ve invested hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in our central city over the decades,” Provenzano said. “Why wouldn’t the community want to get some return on that investment? Downtown is not finished. We can’t afford to stop the momentum we’ve started.” The News Tower redevelopment would cost between $30 and $35 million, Provenzano said, with funds coming from state and federal historic tax credits and private equity from Provenzano’s development company, Joseph James Partners. Rock Valley’s previously pledged $9.2 million ATC investment would be part of the mix, too, Provenzano said, provided that college trustees buy into the vision that he, McNamara and Gaier have laid out. The hotel would offer 69 to 85 rooms depending on how the News Tower is redeveloped, he said. It’s not the first downtown hotel Provenzano has pitched. In December, Provenzano and his wife, Heather, unveiled plans for the downtown Millennium Center to be redeveloped into a 47-room boutique hotel named in honor of Kate F. O’Connor, a businesswoman, suffragist and supporter of the YWCA that operated at that location for decades. The $14 million project is “fully funded,” Provenzano said, with traditional financing, historic tax credits and tax increment financing. It will be managed by IDM Hospitality Management, a boutique hotel specialist. Disruption caused by the COVID-19 outbreak will delay the debut of Hotel Kate a bit, Provenzano said, but construction will begin this year and the hotel will open in 2021. The pandemic has already delayed the opening of a downtown Embassy Suites hotel on the west side of the Rock River. Provenzano said he’s not concerned about developing two hotels a block apart with a third new hotel nearby. “A hotel market needs a cluster of about 300 rooms,” Provenzano said. “You don’t want just one hotel that’s an island.” Provenzano acknowledges that the News Tower project is ambitious. He says he’s up to the challenge. “SupplyCore has implemented numerous nine-figure contracts, simultaneously, for the U.S. Department of Defense,” he said. “Rock River Development Partnership has developed the City Market, the Indoor Market. We’ve redeveloped multiple commercial properties downtown. We’re pretty agile.” However, the News Tower project isn’t possible without Rock Valley as a partner, he said. Trojan said he prefers the airport site as a home for the training center because it “should be simpler in design, lower in cost, quicker to occupy” and is in southwest Rockford — a geographic commitment that board members still wish to make. “It’s ironic, that over these past number of months, no one from the public has come to the Committee of the Whole or board meetings where the public has the opportunity to speak to the board,” Trojan said in an email to the Register Star. “I hardly see anyone come for any reason.” Isaac Guerrero: iguerrero@rrstar.com; @isaac_rrs

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