The Rochelle City Council unanimously approved a proposal Monday that would see the city buy and demolish the Hickory Grove Banquet & Convention Center, located at 1127 N. 7th St. in Rochelle.
The building is currently owned by the Ogle County Civic Center Authority Board. It would be bought for $1. The building has over $112,000 in past due utility bills and over $3.8 million worth of improvements were suggested in its last structural study in 2011, none of which were done.
OCCCA is not a taxing body, and its only stream of revenue comes from its tenants. One month its revenue was about $1,600 and its utilities bill was close to $4,000.
“I listened to many meetings and listened to the financials,” Rochelle City Manager Jeff Fiegenschuh said. ”It became clear after the first meeting that they don’t have the revenue to keep that facility up in operation. Every month they got further and further behind. And they have other bills, too.”
Hickory Grove is planned to close on July 19, after its final event is held at its banquet center.
Fiegenschuh anticipates agreeing to the sale with OCCCA if their board approves it at its meeting on Feb. 19. The Ogle County website lists six vacancies on the OCCCA board, but Fiegenschuh says the board does have enough for a quorum and vote.
The potential sale would be closed in March. Demolition would begin around mid-October.
Also approved at Monday’s council meeting was a proposal to enter into an engineering agreement with Willett, Hofmann & Associates for the demolition project at a cost of not to exceed $50,000. Fiegenschuh estimates the actual demolition will cost in the area of $250,000. The aim is for the building to be demolished and ready for sale and development by late 2020 or early 2021.
Fiegenschuh said he’s had two private parties interested in developing the site, but they didn’t want the current building. An appraiser refused to say what the building was worth because of its condition, but said the site was worth $482,000.
“I think there’s a great opportunity to turn that into a real gem for our community,” Fiegenschuh said. “If the OCCCA board went away and said they’re done with it, it would end up in our laps anyways. And I think we need to act now instead of waiting for that to happen. It will be my top priority over the next 2-3 years to get this done.”
The building came under OCCCA’s control in the 1980s. A group of Rochelle residents wanted a grant for a community center to reopen the old Vagabond Resort that went bankrupt in the 1970s.
The group didn’t qualify for the grant based on Rochelle’s population, so it went to the Ogle County Board to see if it would sign as a governing body and assign a board of directors. The board agreed, but made it clear it didn’t want to run or oversee the entity, which would eventually become Hickory Grove.
“I think the county has held their end of the bargain,” Fiegenschuh said.
The county board does not have to approve or deny a potential sale. It would only have to approve the disbanding of OCCCA after the sale.
The City of Rochelle has worked with Hickory Grove in the past, despite not having a connection with it. The city sent a municipal crew to fix Hickory Grove’s sign when it was broken and got its elevator fixed after it was struck by lightning. Rochelle has its own utility service, Rochelle Municipal Utilities, which are owed back taxes by Hickory Grove.
“The facility would have been closed by now if it wasn’t for the city,” Fiegenschuh said. “If we don’t move forward with this, there will be no choice but to shut them off at some point. We can work with the eventual developer to recoup costs of utilities. We’ve also talked about stripping the building down and having an auction to recoup those costs.”
Hickory Grove’s current tenants include Abraham’s Bar & Grille, Rochelle Swim & Fitness, an antique store and various groups that meet there.
Robin Baldwin Gounaris, owner and operator of Abraham’s Bar & Grille has made extra efforts in an effort to help her business and the building as a whole, including putting money towards some of its minor improvements and utilities over the years.
“I have to worry about if I’m going to have heat or air conditioning for these weddings and things I have to do,” Baldwin Gounaris said. “I can’t save it anymore. I tried. There’s too many things wrong with it.”
“If it were not for her business being there, this thing would really be in trouble,” Rochelle Mayor John Bearrows said.