Local developer Joe Lemon thought the 19th century courthouse, now abandoned and neglected, would be the perfect fit. He submitted a proposal when the General Services Administration (GSA) put out a Request for Lease Proposal seeking interested developers for a new site in February 2020. The GSA is requesting a 20-year lease for either a new building or an existing building of 42,000 to 44,000 square feet.
There's only one problem: Lemon doesn't own the courthouse and the county isn't about to sign a purchase agreement with him. County Board Chairman Richard "Quijas" Brunk said Monday the county still plans to demolish the building.
Kovas Palubinskas, a lease contracting officer with the GSA, sent a letter to Brunk Jan. 11 notifying him the historic courthouse is a finalist to house the federal courthouse "and other federal agencies" and that the government expects to award a lease by the end of April.
"Joe's offer is under consideration and could be awarded the lease, if it is found that the offer is the lowest cost to the government and technically acceptable," Palubinskas wrote. "We are at the procurement stage where we plan on calling for final proposal revisions, wherein we give all offerors one final opportunity to send us a fully responsive offer, with their best rates.
"One outstanding item for Joe's offer is the requirement to show control of the property they are offering, in this case the old county courthouse. The control can be shown by either deed or a purchase option. The purchase option would require that the building be available for immediate purchase should the offeror be awarded the lease by GSA," Palubinskas wrote.
Federal court operations were relocated to the Southern District of Iowa U.S. District Court, 131 E. 4th St., Davenport, when mold and flooding created a hazardous environment at the federal courthouse at 211 19th St., Rock Island. Anyone needing to conduct business at the federal courthouse has had to travel to Iowa since October 2018.
Lemon knows about historic renovation. He is owner and developer of Abbey Station, 3031 5th Ave., Rock Island and The Abbey Addiction Treatment Center, 1401 Central Ave., Bettendorf, both historic properties he successfully renovated and reused. He has long advocated for the preservation and reuse of the historic courthouse, often confronting county board members during meetings and making his pitch with detailed spreadsheets and presentations.
The county could collect property taxes on the courthouse if they sold the building to him, Lemon said.
"The courthouse still exists; it can still be refurbished," Lemon said. "The GSA has twice contacted the county board to urge its members to provide a transaction that would permit the federal government’s use of the historic courthouse. We believe that the GSA’s outreach to the county board reflects what an exceptional site that the Historic Courthouse would be for its future use."
The courthouse, 210 15th St., Rock Island, has been the subject of a tug-of-war between the county that wants it demolished and preservation groups, who sued to keep it standing in February 2019. The case has been in appellate court limbo with Landmarks Illinois, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
A temporary restraining order was issued in July, preventing the county from demolishing the structure until it completed the state-required consultation process with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The county also was required to file a review with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), trying to prove its case that the courthouse is beyond rehabilitation with no possible options for reuse.
"The appellate court ruling said the Historic Preservation Act applied to the building, and therefore required the county to complete a consultation process with the state DNR," Brunk said in an email Monday. "That process was ongoing since even before the appellate court ruling. That process has lead to the DNR recently providing the county with a list of certified contractors to perform the recordation process, so that demolition can move forward. The recordation process essentially documents the building for historic posterity.
"As stated many times before, any changing of course on the property would be complicated and problematic, as well as detrimental to the future of county operations and the taxpayers of the county in the long run,"
The issue for the county is simple: The historic courthouse sits on land the county needs for construction of other facilities. The building is in the way.
"The county has existing facilities scattered all over the city: court services, the juvenile justice center, etc.," Brunk said. "Consolidation of county facilities to create long term efficiencies has been a long term goal since long before I joined the board."
Landmarks Illinois President and CEO Bonnie McDonald said Monday, "IDNR and IEPA have not signed off on demolition going forward."
"Because of the real potential to renovate and reuse the courthouse as a new federal courthouse, we don’t think it’s possible for the agencies to make such a finding. There is an obvious 'feasible and prudent' alternative staring the county in the face," McDonald said.
"Reusing the building as the new federal courthouse is a win for everyone, especially the citizens of Rock Island. At no expense to the already cash-strapped county, Joe Lemon is willing to renovate and preserve our historical asset and we could get a tenant in the federal government that will be a good steward of the building and drive economic activity in the area.
"It is inexplicable to us why the county has not shown any interest in this solution and why Mr. Brunk will not even allow the Rock Island County Board to discuss it," McDonald said.
Lemon and local preservationists had hoped the topic of using old county courthouse for federal court operations would be up for discussion during Wednesday night's county board committee of the whole meeting. At this time, it is not on the agenda.
"From our perspective, what’s detrimental to the taxpayers is spending north of $100,000 on legal fees, losing in court and then compounding the error by refusing to consider the viable reuse solution proposed by Mr. Lemon and under serious consideration by the federal government," McDonald said.