Downtown Developers Discuss History, Future of Bloomington

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Bobby Vericella and Fred Wollrab look forward to having a Downtown action plan.

The revitalization of Downtown Bloomington has been a major topic of discussion for the City in 2017.

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner created the Downtown Task Force Committee in May to “establish top priorities for Downtown Bloomington revitalization and development for the next three to five years.”

The committee presented its final report to the City Council on October 24. A public presentation and question-and-answer session on December 6th drew about 40 residents and business owners to discuss the committee’s findings.

Bobby Vericella, of RJV Property and Construction in Bloomington, was one of nine community members appointed to the committee.

Vericella owns the more than twenty properties Bloomington residents call the “Downtown Lofts” or “Downtown Flats”--units situated above commercial spaces, outfitted for residential living. Vericella has been renovating these historic properties since 2004.

For the past five years, Vericella has partnered with long-time developer Fred Wollrab to tackle larger residential and commercial properties Downtown.

The two redeveloped The Benoni Green Building at 115 E. Monroe St., their largest project to date. After a year of construction, the five-story building now houses fifteen loft apartments, as well as a banquet hall and Johnston’s Hockey. They own four other Downtown properties together, including units that house Strand Studio and Ginzkey Law Office.

The developers currently own a total of more than 40 loft-style properties, and are responsible for the redevelopment of even more properties with their 50-plus years of combined experience.

As both residents and business owners in Bloomington, Vericella and Wollrab believe there is a way forward for the city’s historic center; before any real progress can be made, the City of Bloomington needs to “get behind the Downtown.”

Vericella cited parking, cleanliness and general upkeep among issues the City has been aware of for some time, but has yet to act on a solution.

“(The City) keeps doing studies, and they don’t do anything with them,” said Vericella. “If you’re behind (Downtown) and you support it, you make stuff happen. It’s no different than doing a project. You can talk about doing it all day.”

Wollrab has seen a similar recurring pattern over the years in Bloomington.

“It seems like for some time now the city has hit kind of a ceiling,” said Wollrab. “They still don’t really know what to do. They keep doing studies and plans, but they never actually do them.”

Wollrab says Downtown Bloomington was in rough shape when he moved home to help manage his father’s rental properties in the early 1970s.

“Somebody said it was worse than the Great Depression,” Wollrab remembered. Commercial and residential vacancies had plagued the city's center after the opening of Eastland Mall in 1967, which drew business away from Downtown. Historic buildings were crumbling without incentives for property owners to maintain them. “People would say, ‘The Downtown is dead. It’s over. It’s history.’”

As a 20-something with plenty of time and energy, Wollrab didn’t mind looking after the buildings his father Jim, an attorney at Costigan & Wollrab, wanted to unload. As Wollrab renovated more units and acquired more unwanted properties, the City began to take notice.

“People said, ‘You’ve created a little monster here by doing these apartments,” said Wollrab. The growing number of residents put pressure on the City to provide services for what had now become a neighborhood as much as a business district. Wollrab became an advocate for Downtown over the years, petitioning for changes to city code and opposing a tax on property owners to fund the Downtown Bloomington Association.

Wollrab said there’s only so much he can do as a property owner. “There’s no body or group that decides what happens Downtown. So my whole life it’s just been, go Downtown and talk to the City Manager, and either they do something about it or they don’t.”

Wollrab would like to see the City create an official, authoritative body, much like The Liquor Commission, to “carry the torch for Downtown, and have a continuity of vision.” A so-called Downtown Commission would propose a budget and action plan to the City Council for approval, and then carry it out, said Wollrab.

For the first time in years, Vericella has noticed occupancy rates beginning to fall for the Downtown flats.

Jessica Brooks, RJV Properties office manager, said after the company’s tenant rental renewal period from February to March, the Benoni Green Building had four or five open units. As of November, all but one had been filled. Brooks said it’s unusual to see any vacancies for the Downtown properties; either tenants choose to renew their one-year lease, or the company notifies wait-listed prospective tenants of upcoming vacancies.

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Vericella attributes the vacancies in part to a lack of jobs Downtown. He said he’s noticed far fewer employees in the State Farm Downtown Building, the insurance giant’s former corporate headquarters. “There’s basically no one in that whole building Downtown. So that’s hurt us a little bit.”

Requests for comment from State Farm Corporate representatives were not immediately returned.

The developer also suspects the market for residential lofts Downtown has been overbuilt.

Tricia Stiller, executive director of the Downtown Bloomington Association, told The Pantagraph in October 2016 there were nearly 100 residential lofts in Downtown. Vericella said he hadn’t seen any new Downtown lofts under construction since then.

Both Wollrab and Vericella look to the Town of Normal’s Uptown as an example of how the City of Bloomington could revamp its Downtown.

Normal’s efforts to rebuild its central business district, then called Downtown Normal, started over 15 years ago when the Normal Town Council hired a planning firm to develop a master plan.

The Town sought public opinion by interviewing businesses, holding public meetings and collecting emails and comment cards. A Mayor-appointed committee of community representatives analyzed the public input.

The Town Council adopted the resulting Downtown Normal Redevelopment Plan in 2001. The updated Uptown Normal Master Plan outlines the district’s development for the next five to ten years.

The Bloomington City Council will review the Downtown Task Force’s final report later this month.