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Wednesday, March 18, 2009 06:11 pm

Conns speak out: TIF process needs overhaul

Owners of Lindsay/Maisenbacher House reveal plans for building

Karen and Court Conn, owners of the Lindsay House, plan to outfit the Lincoln-era structure with a wine cellar, kitchen store and coffee shop.

Karen Conn’s voice takes on a buoyant tone as she describes the future of the Maisenbacher House, or what she and her husband Court loyally call the Lindsay House. Now parked in its final resting place at 503 S. Seventh St., the 19th-century brick home, constructed by Isaac Lindsay with $650 borrowed from Abraham Lincoln, will eventually become a hot spot of sorts for the Lincoln Home area.

The Conns envision a wine cellar with a cache of available Illinois and novelty wines and a wood-burning fireplace in the home’s lower level. They plan to install a demonstration kitchen and a kitchen store, as well as a coffee shop, on the first floor. Plans for the upstairs are still in the works, but the couple hopes guest rooms for visiting Illinois or Lincoln scholars will fit into the final floorplan.

“Springfield’s backbone is tourism,” Karen Conn said. “People want to come to Springfield to get a flavor of what Lincoln lived through.”

The Lindsay House hasn’t always had such promising prospects. Last week the Conns visited the Enos Park Neighborhood Association meeting and spoke out about their very public struggle to save the home, first from the wrecking ball and then from disgruntled and misinformed Springfield residents.

Last October the Lindsay House, still rooted to its original spot at 1028 S. Seventh St. and owned by the Springfield Clinic, was slated for demolition after the clinic announced expansion plans. The Conns, local preservationists who restored and opened Inn at 835 in 1997, stepped in to purchase the home. They used mostly private funds and donations, plus a city community development block grant, to move it five blocks to its current location across from the Lincoln Home visitor center.

Springfield media publicized the Lindsay House’s Nov. 15 and 16 transfer [see Ginny Lee, “A dramatic move on Seventh Street,” Nov. 20]. Many scrutinized the Conns further after a request for $822,000 in Central Area tax increment financing dollars for the home came before the city council the following week. Aldermen and their constituents clamored that they were blindsided by the large request.

The Conns say tax increment financing saved the Lindsay House.

“All of our issues actually started when the ordinance came up,” Court Conn said. “All of the TIF-eligible expenses this house could be eligible for added up to 800-and- something-thousand. That’s a huge number.”

Even though the Conns wanted to split up their TIF requests, Karen Conn added, the city’s corporation counsel decided that they should put the entire package before the city council.

“That was not the way we wanted to approach it,” she said. “The project moved too fast. That’s why everything exploded.”

The Conns — who speedily removed the home from the Springfield Clinic’s construction zone — couldn’t pour a new foundation without receiving the TIF funds for reimbursement and had to leave the Lindsay House sitting on Jackson Street.

On Dec. 2 the Conns slimmed down their request to $279,845, just to cover the new foundation and related moving costs. After the city council denied the proposal, they paid to put the home on temporary supports. The Conns began talking with individual aldermen — they met three times with Ald. Frank Lesko, they said — to educate them on the rushed, but necessary, steps taken with the Lindsay House.

Part of the problem, Karen Conn said, was that many of the aldermen were unfamiliar with TIF funds, which are specifically set aside for development and rehabilitation projects in eight blighted areas scattered through Springfield.

“If these aldermen aren’t intimately familiar with the challenges and issues that each of these areas face, how can they be the deciding factor in who’s going to get what?” she said.

Another problem surfaced, the Conns added, because most people didn’t realize that the original $822,000 they requested was only a percentage of the project. They planned to privately fund the remainder of the estimated $1.7 million restoration.

On Feb. 17, after the Conns’ “public education blitz,” they again requested the $279,845 for the foundation. This time the measure passed when Alds. Kris Theilen, Steve Dove and Lesko changed their votes to yes. The Conns recently started work on the permanent foundation.

The Conns said that without TIF, the Lindsay House wouldn’t have been saved. But the first-time applicants feel the process still needs to be changed, especially as other preservationists set out to save Lincoln-era homes. It’s too complicated, Karen Conn said, forcing applicants to fill out confusing paperwork, to pay prevailing wage (some doing work on the Lindsay Home are being paid $78 an hour by contractors, she said), and to announce their every move to the media.

The city shouldn’t require applicants to seek approval from the city council, she added, and should instead transition to the use of a homeowner panel for project approval — a system used in Decatur.

Mike Farmer, director of the city’s office of planning and economic development, said that the city’s corporation counsel structured the current TIF process, and that officials are always looking for ways to “make it easier to get the funds into the hands of those who are going to properly use them.”

The Lindsay House project is unique on several fronts, Farmer said, from the property’s age and historical significance to its relocation. The Conns should have never faced public ridicule, he added, and instead should be commended for their efforts.

“I have every faith that Court and Karen Conn will make that something the community will be proud of,” Farmer said, “and that people down the road will be grateful that the house was preserved.”

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