'Save the Belleville Meredith Home' gets attention on Facebook

News-DemocratAugust 17, 2013 

A page called "Save the Belleville Meredith Home," recently popped up on Facebook and attracted some attention, averaging more than 100 likes per day.

Like many of you, I feel a twinge of what, (Conscience? Guilt? Regret?) at the passing of the Meredith Home, once called the Hotel Belleville.

But here's a fact. The Meredith Home is a dead building standing.

It's gone. Done. Toast. Soon-to-be-demolished.

It will become a park, dedicated to the late Susannah Marison, daughter of renowned lawyer Bruce Cook and his wife, Sandra, who gave the city $500,000 to pay off the debt the city incurred when it bought the building from the Diocese of Belleville.

The city expects to pay more than $400,000 to tear the building down, after getting rid of the asbestos in the building.

It does seem like a perfectly good building, but it isn't.

But here's the rub.

What would you use it for? And if you do have an idea, do you have $10 million or so to finance your project?

The Facebook page is the creation of Rick Ortiz, a businessman and former head of Downtown Belleville Inc.

Ortiz said he created the page because he thinks a lot of people feel like he does.

"I understand it's a problem," he said. "But why do we have to be in such a hurry to get rid of it?"

He pointed out that the old Turner Hall, once the downtown YMCA, sat for a few years before someone came forward to develop it.

True, but the big differences are the size and cost of the two projects, according to Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert.

It will cost the city of Belleville a total of less than $300,000 to help the developer of the old Y, Eckert said. It would have cost the city more than $400,000 just to tear that building down.

Eckert, whose job these days seems to consist of explaining unpopular decisions, said the city didn't just suddenly decide to tear down the Meredith Home, one of the city's neat looking old downtown buildings. A lot of thought, time and energy went into trying to find someone to fix it up, he said.

It might seem logical that something could be done with it. But he said it isn't.

"We did try to save it," Eckert said. "We explored options, we placed ads. We talked to people. We led tours of the building."

But anyone with a proposal wanted too much from the city, he said.

"They wanted us to buy adjacent buildings to tear down for parking," he said. "Everyone wanted at least 120 spaces along with TIF (tax increment financing) money and motor fuel tax money. (The building has eight marked spaces.)

"Everybody we talked to wanted the city to put in 50 percent or more. With the hotel project it was projected at $12 million with the city contributing $6.2 million -- and that was without us having any ownership."

Plus the city wants control over what goes into the building in order to protect its investment in downtown renovation.

Eckert said he appreciates the sentimental value the building holds for people.

"My mother and father spent their first night there as a married couple before leaving for Florida on a bus for their honeymoon," he said.

But he thinks a deal is a deal.

"We accepted the check. The council voted for it" (14-1 with one absence), he said. "The deal was for a park setting. I firmly believe we have a deal to build the park."

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 618-239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com.

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