Conversion of former Springfield First downtown location moving along

10/2/2018

SPRINGFIELD -- The long-awaited conversion of a former downtown church to apartments, office and retail space could be complete by late spring to early summer, according to project stakeholders.
 
The $8.4 million project — converting the former First United Methodist Church, 501 E. Capitol Ave., to 11,000 square feet of office and retail space and 25 apartments, was first announced in 2016.
 
While leading The State Journal-Register on a tour of the still-to-be-finished building interior last week, Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Hembrough voiced optimism the project will be complete within the next year.
 
While signs of progress have been limited from the outside, significant progress on construction has been made inside the building. Interior wall framing has started to go up in the apartment area, and work will begin soon in the office space to be occupied by the chamber.
 
This is progress from late last year, when work began to stabilize the building’s deteriorating structure, including the repairing of its roof. The church has been vacant since 2008.
 
“When we were starting to work on this thing, just trying to get this project going, you couldn’t walk through here without your feet getting soaking wet,” Hembrough said. “I mean everything was leaking.”
 
But all was dry this week as construction moved forward.
 
The chamber joined forces with The Springfield Project and, later, the Economic Growth Corporation of Rock Island to make the project happen. The latter group, according to CEO Brian Hollenback, specializes in residential and community development projects in historic districts.
 
“The last thing we want to be is a developer-owner,” Hembrough said. “We said if we have to be that developer of last resort, with somebody who’s got experience, we’re willing. We prefer not, but we’re willing. And we found somebody who has done a lot of these adaptive reuse projects around the state.”
 
Now dubbed “Centre @ 501,” the project is considered a prime opportunity to jumpstart downtown development given its location at Fifth Street and Capitol Avenue.
 
“The housing study a number of years ago really revealed the need for additional downtown residential units,” Hembrough said. “Obviously, this was a beautiful, historic building that was sitting here empty and falling apart. And we believe in a pretty strategic location downtown right down the street from the Capitol, catty-corner kind of from the Governor’s Mansion (and the YWCA block), a prime piece of real estate that’s going to get redeveloped in some form or fashion.”
 
“If there’s a project like this that has the potential to be a catalyst for revitalization in downtown, we felt like, location-wise, this was it,” he said.
 
A majority of the office and retail space will be used as a new headquarters for the GSCC, who will move from its current 1011 S. Second St. location. About 4,000 square feet of the remaining retail space will be leased out.
 
The apartments will be located in the former education wing of the church. Sixteen will be one-bedroom units, and nine will have two bedrooms, with rent ranging from $780 to $1,150 per month.
 
Hembrough said project developers used “all sorts of tools to make this thing work,” including historic tax credits, new market tax credits, state donation tax credits, $985,000 in tax increment financing from the city of Springfield and taking on about $4.4 million in borrowing.
 
What is noticeable throughout the building, in addition to the progress made on construction, was how much remains the same. Features like the marble steps on the staircases, wood paneling, stained glass near the former worship space and even a bulletin board advertising Bible study times remain.
 
Given the historic nature of the building, many of the features had to remain to qualify for the tax credits. It also explains the lack of changes to the exterior of the building.
 
But the exterior will look slightly different when all is said and done. A front entrance for the space occupied by the GSCC will be carved out at Fifth and Capitol, opening up a previously closed-off corner.
 
Economic Growth Corporation, after purchasing the property for $150,000 last year, is acting as developer and property manager. O’Shea Builders is the general contractor and Evan Lloyd Architects serves as architect.
 
Though it has not always been easy, Hembrough said he hopes the development will be “proof of concept.”
 
“With the right partners, people and entities involved, something like this can get done in Springfield and it can be successful,” he said. “Hopefully it’ll be a catalyst to move other ones forward.”
 
Efforts to do something with the empty church started in 2014, when former Springfield alderman Irv Smith and Springfield developer Dan Mulcahy formed a company to purchase the church for $190,000 in 2014, according to county records. The two became involved in an extended court fight over spending on the project. A judge ruled in late 2015 that Mulcahy failed to keep an investment commitment and that he had misused funds invested by Smith. The judge appointed a receiver to sell the property.
 
Last month, project stakeholders recognized Smith for his early role in the redevelopment effort during a ceremony at the former church.
 
(Reprinted with permission from the Sept. 24 issue of The State Journal-Register, www.sj-r.com)