By Brittany Keeperman
Staff writer
Posted Jun. 26, 2016 at 10:44 AM
Updated at 1:26 PM

ROCKFORD — Three civic leaders are asking the city for $200,000 a year for three years to revive a southeast side neighborhood as the Rockford Public Schools prepare to raze Kishwaukee and Nelson Elementary schools and replace them with a new school in the Kishwaukee Street corridor.

The project leaders plan to ask Winnebago County for an identical $600,000 contribution, at $200,000 a year for three years. They plan to raise money from private investors as well. Their redevelopment plan calls for demolition of blighted homes, the addition of green space, mixed-income housing, safe walking routes to school, and college and career readiness programs. The target neighborhood surrounds Kishwaukee Elementary School, 526 Catlin St. The request goes before the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee on Monday.

United Way of Rock River Valley CEO Paul Logli, attorney Jim Keeling and John Holmstrom, vice president of William Charles Investments, are leading the effort. They’ve asked RPS to build the replacement school for Kishwaukee and Nelson schools on the site where Kishwaukee Elementary stands today.

“The school has to not only be new structure but a really good school so people want to live in the school zone,” Keeling said. “To have a high-performing elementary school leading into middle school and high school, you need wraparound early childhood education and place-based scholarships to college.”

Enhanced early childhood education opportunities and college scholarships for neighborhood residents also could be part of the larger neighborhood redevelopment. Logli, Keeling and Holmstrom hope to partner with education providers such as Rockford University to strengthen educational offerings in the area.

The three men want to wrap their vision into a larger south Rockford redevelopment as part of a partnership with Atlanta-based Purpose Built, a nonprofit organization that helps communities across the country revitalize old neighborhoods.

Logli, Keeling and Holmstrom are part of a larger collaboration among volunteers, nonprofit leaders and government officials who have been in talks with Purpose Built leaders. Their aim is to revitalize south Rockford along the riverfront where the city’s first settlers lived in the 1830s. The idea is to build high-quality, mixed-income housing on both sides of the river with walking-distance access to schools, health and fitness centers and other services.

Purpose Built hasn’t decided whether to accept Rockford as one of its clients yet. Keeling said that those discussions are continuing and that Purpose Built consultants will meet with the group next month.

For now, the Purpose Built redevelopment area is bounded roughly by Cedar Street on the north, Lane Street on the south, Kishwaukee Street on the east and South Winnebago Street on the west. Within that area, the neighborhood surrounding Kishwaukee Elementary is the more immediate redevelopment focus for Logli, Keeling and Holmstrom.

Rockford School Board member Tim Rollins said he favored the idea of placing the new elementary school at the Kishwaukee site as long as doing so doesn’t push the school district over budget. The district has budgeted about $1.6 million to buy property and demolish buildings to make room for the replacement school and adequate green space. It’s part of the district’s larger, $250 million facilities overhaul approved by voters in 2012.

Nelson and Kishwaukee schools are to close after the 2017-18 school year and the new school would open for the 2018-19 year. The school district must buy at least 27 privately owned properties, including some homes, and demolish them to make room for the new school. If the larger plan pitched by Logli, Keeling and Holmstrom moves forward, an additional 14 properties will have to be purchased and 12 of those will be torn down.

“If we can partner with other organizations in town to leverage what we are doing to create a greater benefit to community, we’d be supportive of that,” Rollins said.

Keeling, Holmstrom and Logli pledge to raise at least $200,000 in private donations. They also hope Rockford can steer some of a nearly $1.2 million federal grant it received in March to reduce neighborhood blight to their proposal. Funding for their revitalization plan may also come from Rockford Corridor Improvement, a Rockford nonprofit led by Holmstrom that seeks to establish safe walking routes to schools. Logli and Keeling have pledged $10,000 apiece to the effort.

Forty to 60 percent of households around Kishwaukee Elementary live in poverty.

The city and United Way of Rock River Valley aren’t the only ones sizing up the neighborhood for reinvestment. The Rockford Housing Authority is awaiting federal approval to demolish Brewington Oaks, twin towers containing 418 apartments for low-income elderly and disabled people in the 500 block of Seminary Street. Officials from the city of Rockford and RHA are discussing options for replacing Brewington Oaks.

Ald. Venita Hervey, D-5, wants to know how the plan pitched by Logli, Keeling and Holmstrom would fit into the City Council’s ongoing, broader discussion about how to create affordable housing throughout the Rockford region while eliminating concentrations of poverty in city neighborhoods.

“I want to see that area have something better,” she said. “I want to see it grow into something better. Not necessarily opposed to it. But I want (the) whole conversation on table, not just pieces of it.”

The idea of acquiring property, including privately owned homes where people now live, is a concern for Ald. Karen Elyea, D-11. The Kishwaukee Elementary neighborhood needs redevelopment, she said, but it’s not the only city neighborhood needing attention and reinvestment.

“We have still hundreds of houses that are empty and blighted scattered all throughout Rockford,” she said. “It’s been my focus to remove those houses. It’s a new line of thought to be taking down houses where people live. … But it’s worthy of consideration.”