Eckert seeks to delay demolition of Meredith Home

News-DemocratMarch 8, 2014 

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert.

ZIA NIZAMI — znizami@bnd.com Buy Photo

— As the deadline for a May demolition of the Meredith Home draws near, preservationists continue to appeal to developers and hope for an extension from Belleville officials.

Mayor Mark Eckert said Friday he will ask aldermen to delay the demolition until spring 2015 because the city's bicentennial events, including a performance by the Beach Boys in September, and the usual annual downtown events will be held on the Public Square this year.

Funds for the building's demolition and asbestos abatement, about $600,000, are not in the draft 2014-15 budget city leaders will start discussing Monday.

Though several groups have expressed enthusiasm to preserve the Meredith Home, no firm commitments have materialized to date. Also, the city has not identified any developers checking out the property at 16 S. Illinois St.

Eckert said he wants to give interested developers until about November to submit proposals. Aldermen will have to agree, however, to including money for demolition and asbestos work in the 2015-16 budget if no one comes forward.

Eckert told council members in February he would have to discuss the extension with Belleville attorney Bruce Cook first.

Cook and his wife, Sandra Cook, gave the city $500,000 to pay off the city's $492,101 loan for the property at 16 S. Illinois St.

In exchange, the Cooks want the land turned into a park to honor their daughter, Susannah Marison, who died at age 36 from a brain tumor.

If the city does not fulfill the plans for greenspace, then the city will have to give the Cooks their money back plus interest, Eckert said.

"He and his wife have been extremely understanding and supportive of the city being cautious and going slow," Eckert said.

The city purchased the property from the Catholic Diocese of Belleville in 2010 and first planned on demolition, depending on available funding, in the fall of 2012.

Then, after the bidding process was delayed to 2013 for a November demolition, city leaders learned there would be extra costs associated with asbestos abatement. At the same time, Belleville residents were petitioning the city to save the building.

Aldermen voted in September to give preservationists until May.

Rick Ortiz, a Belleville resident who launched a "Save the Meredith Home" campaign, applauded city leaders in September for giving advocates more time to drum up interest in the building.

For months, Ortiz, Larry Betz of the Belleville Historical Society and architect Gary Karasek, among others, have maintained a website, www.projectbelleville.org, that includes original blueprints, a condition assessment and video of the interior.

They sought investors and also worked to place the site on an annual list of the state's most endangered historic places. The Belleville Turner Hall made Landmarks Illinois' endangered list in 2011 and a Swansea businessman is now renovating the building to relocate his company.

"It's a great building in the middle of a great town," Ortiz said. "The only thing we're battling with is time."

Karasek, a Belleville architect, said the diocese kept the building in good shape as a residence for older adults. And, the winter weather has not done much damage to the building, he added.

Betz said turning the building into living spaces with retail on the first floor is not a novel idea. Before the diocese bought the building and opened Meredith Memorial in 1962, the property was home to two hotels, Hotel Belleville and the Belleville House.

The Belleville House was torn down to make way for a larger hotel. Hotel Belleville was built with help from the city's Chamber of Commerce despite the recession in the 1920s, Betz said.

Last month, a Cincinnati-based developer known for historic preservation and mixed use development toured the building with the city's economic development team. The News-Democrat could not reach a company representtive to confirm the developer's interest.

Eckert told city leaders that this most recent developer's interest is probably the most positive response he has received so far.

Eckert said he is open to an extension because he recognizes that the economy has improved from 2010 when the city first promoted the building.

Eckert said tax incentives are on the table, depending on the number of jobs, and sales or hotel/motel tax, generated by the new business.

But, the city cannot be the biggest participant in any acceptable reuse of the building, Eckert said.

"We're especially interested in talking to people who have done this before," Eckert said. "They can dream a little bit more clearly on the realities of what challenges these old buildings have."

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 618-239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDJLee.

Belleville News-Democrat is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service