ROCHELLE — Rochelle City Council paved the way for a local business expansion into the downtown following approval of a redevelopment agreement and a non-exclusive parking easement on Monday night.
Council approved the redevelopment agreement for the building located at 413 W. Fourth Avenue with Storybook Gardens, LLC. Owner Jana Gruben intends to convert the building, located on the northeast corner of Fourth and Lincoln Highway, into a boutique hotel on the second and third floors with the lower level space for a restaurant and offices.
Gruben has been operating the wedding venue Storybook Gardens on Bethel Road in rural Rochelle and still plans to keep that facility open for several months out of the year.
Along with a complete mechanicals upgrade, Gruben will begin roof repairs within 90 days of closing as part of the agreement. The closing could come as soon as June 1.
City Council also approved a non-exclusive parking easement with Storybook Gardens that would keep parking spaces directly behind the building located at 429 Lincoln Highway open. Gruben intends to redevelop the building on the southeast corner of Lincoln Highway and Fifth Avenue into a wedding venue/banquet hall with a restaurant/lounge open to the community.
Before the vote, Raegan Carmichael from the Rochelle Brand Leadership Team addressed council members in a prepared statement. Carmichael said she is “excited that Jana is bringing a plan,” but questioned if all options to find other parking solutions were considered as the agreement seems to go against plans to build a plaza attraction in that area.
“… In allowing this parking contract to take place you are essentially eliminating the branding plan. I would like to know what steps were taken to find other solutions for parking… When the Kennays were in the initial planning stage for their distillery they had several locations in mind, and after hearing the plan involving the plaza and pavilion and how it would monetize the downtown, provide a variety of events and the constant customer base, they chose Rochelle,” Carmichael said. “How do we respond to them now that it is potentially not happening?”
Carmichael also questioned how they would answer to the community groups that originally pitched in the $100,000 to begin the revitalization process.
Several council members expressed their viewpoints, stating they are not against the branding team’s plan but in order to bring that to fruition the plaza and pavilion project would need millions of dollars.
“Everyone has said we’d love to see this plaza work, but we have somebody knocking at the door today that wants to invest a lot of money, so if we have to change locations [of the plaza/pavilion] I guess I don’t see the problem in that,” said councilman John Bearrows. “I hope [the branding team] doesn’t get discouraged and walk away, that’s not the intent of this at all. To clarify, I’m not against the plaza. If we do the plaza in this parking lot and if we don’t do the item before us tonight we haven’t done a thing to secure more parking. We’ve removed 70 to 80 spots.”
City manager Jeff Fiegenschuh agreed that the city has supported a plaza coming to the downtown and that the income generated will increase the TIF district monies.
“The notion that the city is not supportive of the plaza isn’t true… maybe not in that location because we have somebody willing to put their own money, a lot of money, into our downtown to help revitalize it. I thought that’s what we talked about is private investment.”
Fiegenschuh noted that the city-run events, such as Cinco de Mayo, Lincoln Highway Heritage Festival, Irish Hooley, and the food truck festivals will still utilize the parking lots along Main Street. The agreement simply keeps the parking spaces open. The agreement also states that if Storybook Gardens fails to “maintain operations for a time period longer than 90 days, then the easement is revoked.”
Following the meeting, the Brand Leadership Team issued a statement. In part the team said they have “no doubt this downtown venue will be a success.”
“This is exactly the type of anchor tenant our downtown needs,” said BLT member Jenny Thompson. “The possible addition of the wedding venue will increase the funds available in the TIF account and could give us working capital for the addition of a future plaza and pavilion in the area without burdening our residents with the expense.”
BLT member Naomi Baldwin echoed Thompson’s statement, noting there is new activity in the downtown with several businesses opening.
The statement indicated the group is not discouraged about council’s decision to keep the parking lots along North Main as parking.
“We have several ideas to continue to bring our community to life and make Rochelle a perfect place to raise a family. We’re still working quietly and we’re going to get creative and make something happen here,” said BLT Chair Tricia Herrera.
Gruben said the timeframe for the wedding venue at the Lincoln Highway location is set for February of 2019. She also has a vision of being a part of helping to bring a bustling downtown.
“I’m a local hometown girl that tried something outside of town and it worked really well, we have a really great formula. I’m just trying to bring it into the downtown area and do the same thing down there,” Gruben said. “I’m trying to bring back the way it was when I was a child. We’re trying to bring that back.”