Wilson Building file photo

CLINTON — At certain times this year, the Clinton City Council has had narrow votes and made decisions that sparked public backlash. But in the wake of Tuesday’s committee of the whole meeting, the public appears to have approved of their locally elected officials’ decision on the Wilson Building.

Brian Hollenback, president of the Rock Island, Illinois-based non-profit Economic Development Corporation, called the possible renovation of the multi-story historic structure at 217 Fifth Ave. South “a catalyst for the downtown.” It includes renovating the now empty office building and storefront into 32 market- rate apartments — 11 one-bedroom and 21 two-bedroom units.

The project is a total $8.3 million Clinton investment, with Hollenback requesting $1.5 million in city tax increment financing (TIF) dollars. If everything moves forward as planned, EGC would finalize its purchase agreement in March, begin working on the new Wilson Building this spring and start leasing apartments as early as mid-2016.

“We’re here to make an impact,” Hollenback said. “Your downtown is the heart of your city.”

After numerous citizens — ranging from long-time business owners to recent transplants — voiced their support for the project, the council followed, voting 7-0 to direct City Administrator Jessica Kinser to plan a development contract with a 15-year TIF. Upon the final vote, a room filled with dozens cheered for the council.

Many spoke to how the project greatly diversifies Clinton’s current housing options, especially in the downtown sector. Leslie Friedman addressed the council as someone who is less than a year removed from trying to find market- rate housing. While she eventually settled on a place, Friedman said she and her husband would have greatly appreciated having a place like the Wilson Building to consider.

“What we were looking for is exactly what Mr. Hollenback was talking about,” Friedman said, describing a “sweeping impact” it will have on the downtown. “I really think as a new fresh face in the community that the Wilson Building is going to be an additive.”

Steve Howes, a partner at Howes & Jefferies Realtors, said there is no better premise than what the Wilson development can offer Clinton, a reason why so many are behind the project.

“We talk about it, I think it’s time we act and keep the young workforce here,” he said. “The moving force of our future.”

The unique components of the project were highlighted throughout a presentation by Hollenback to lead off the meeting. EGC was alerted to potential development through the private sector in 2013, and first visited the site in November that year. The group has actually had a development team in place since March, having already appointed an architect firm — Walker, Coen, Lorentzen of Des Moines.

That development team has spent months visiting the site, working through obtaining funding options and envisioning ways to “maximize dollars,” according to Hollenback. The team has settled on a vision that would rejuvenate the interior and exterior of the building.

“We didn’t just jump into this,” Hollenback said. “This isn’t something we typically do.”

In addition to ground floor, split-level apartments, plans call for the renovation of what was formerly JC Penney into a community center — a social activity area designed for residents. The purpose would be not only to make use of the space, but to show prospective developers interested in a downtown front that “the lights are on.”

Outside, the alley behind the Wilson Building would be revamped for improved aesthetic appeal and parking spaces. Moving up through the interior, EGC envisions multiple housing options that range between $650 and $1,100 monthly rent.

This vision is what sold John Eisenman, secretary of the Downtown Clinton Alliance. Last month, the group approved a $30,000 forgiveable loan to kickstart the project.

While the loan is subject to council approval, it’s a signifier to Eisenman of how the community is behind this project. The loan is the single largest incentive the DCA has granted to an entity, though Eisenman acknowledged that a $1.5 million TIF request was also nothing to sneeze at.

“It’s a big ask. There’s no question about it. But this is a big project,” he said.

Before the vote, several council members asked Kinser about particulars of the agreement. One decision the council faced was to make 25 percent of the apartment units income restricted, which would have freed up $450,000 low-to-moderate income (LMI) TIF withholding dollars.

However, the uniqueness of the project appealed to many on the council, leading to their unanimous approval without LMI stipulations.

“This is a project where we just need to go all in,” said councilman Ed O’Neill. “These people have come up with a whole new concept of doing things.”

After the final vote was tallied, and the applause died down, Kinser spelled out a timeline for the development. The DCA’s forgiveable loan agreement will come before the council for approval Dec. 18. Since there will be first-floor apartments, EGC will request a zoning variance that will appear during the January Plan Commission meeting.

A development agreement between the city and EGC would likely appear in January. Since it offers TIF and would require an Urban Renewal Plan, it is subject to a public hearing.

While there are many votes and resolutions that remain, many at the meeting seemed to agree the Wilson Building project is an exciting prospect for Clinton.

“This is such an outstanding opportunity to move the downtown forward,” Eisenman said. The applause meter indicates he’s not alone with those sentiments.

Assistant Editor Brenden West can be contacted at brendenwest@clintonherald.com

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