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Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009 08:29 pm

From blight to business

Revitalizing Springfield, one vacant building at a time

Weeds grow from the foundation of the deteriorated apartment building at 715 E. Cook St. The faded paint on the windows is cracked and peeling, and empty sardine cans litter the front stoop.

A sign on the door shows the tan brick building has been condemned.

“OCCUPANCY PROHIBITED,” it warns in bold letters.

It’s a perfect candidate for a renovation, says Carolyn Oxtoby, chairwoman of Springfield’s Heritage Foundation.

Formed in 1999, the nonprofit Heritage Foundation persuades owners of derelict buildings around downtown Springfield to sell or donate the structures to the foundation, which in turn gets them into the hands of developers for renovation.

The goal, she said, is to revitalize the downtown area by helping buildings to become productive.

The group has completed five such transactions since its inception, Oxtoby said.

Because it is not-for-profit, donations to the Heritage Foundation are tax deductible, which Oxtoby said helps persuade owners to offload the buildings.

“Theoretically, our job is done when the building is passed on to the new owner,” Oxtoby said. “But we kind of keep an eye on it.”

The group is an offshoot of Downtown Springfield Inc., a consortium of local businesses promoting the city’s historic business district.

“We’re looking at blighted areas, perhaps an eyesore, where the owner may be from out of town,” said DSI director Victoria Clemons. “I think it’s been great. We had a flood of properties when I first started, up until about a year ago. Now we’re looking for more projects.”

Interested developers must submit a bid for each building, Oxtoby said, and the highest bidder isn’t always the one who gets the prize.
“What we look at is the interest and the ability of the buyer to do the rehab,” she said.

Bidders must agree not to demolish the buildings, and they must complete the renovation in a timely manner, Oxtoby said.

The building at 715 E. Cook St. was donated to the Heritage Foundation and has been purchased by a Chicago renovator and will feature larger apartments when completed, according to Oxtoby.

“The demand for apartments is huge,” she said. “We would prefer that (developers) turn them into apartments rather than office space, because it will sit empty for a decade.”

Maybe not a decade, but three buildings containing offices on the 600 block of East Washington Street have sat unoccupied for at least a year, with large “For sale” signs hanging in the dusty windows.

Oxtoby said the group is seeking more buildings to offer developers, since the departure of former Heritage Foundation president Terry Schad has caused a slowdown in building turnover.

“He was instrumental in getting at least one building a year,” Oxtoby said of Schad. “Now that he has retired, things have slowed down a bit.”

In June 2008, Springfield attorney Bruce Beeman purchased the Bunn-Sankey House at 1001 S. State St. through the Heritage Foundation, a process Beeman called positive.

“It was something that I felt was worthwhile,” Beeman said. “They wanted my word that I would restore the house to a reasonable condition. I think I kept my word, and they kept theirs.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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