City Council reverses decision, gives Historical Society chance to prove finances

New museum could benefit downtown, community


Editor’s note: I apologize this story did not run last week as intended. It was written and sent prior to our printing deadline while I was on vacation in Maine (see pic below right). Unfortunately, it was never received by the staff working hard without me. Next trip we will make sure to bring the entire staff along so communication is improved while on vacation.

Rockford Area Historical Society founding members Marv and Joan Bunn talk with President Terry Konkle and his wife Jan about fund-raising strategies for a new museum. They are pictured in the Homer Burch geneology room of the museum.

On Monday, July 11, members of the Rockford City Council apparently reversed an earlier decision turning down a proposal by the Rockford Area Historical Society to open a museum in the former 63rd District Court building. Instead they gave the Society a six-month window to raise half of the funds necessary to renovate the building, located across the parking lot from Rockford City Hall.

“Our point all along is give us a shot,” said Historical Society President Terry Konkle. He believes the council may have set a precedent by giving dog park hopefuls a year to fundraise for that project at last month’s meeting.

OLD DIGS—The Rockford Historical Museum is currently housed in a City-owned building that was a former power plant associated with the Rockford dam.

Konkle said it would require an estimated $500,000 to do all that the Society has in mind to bring Rockford a first-class interactive Historical Society museum that would benefit downtown, the greater Rockford community and be a destination for visitors.

Council had asked for proposals for a public use for the former court building, which was purchased from Kent County for a token $10 after the Supreme Court ended a fight to return a full court presence to the location. As part of the agreement, Rockford is required to use the structure for a public purpose. Both the Historical Society and North Kent Community Services put in a bid, but both were turned down. The Historical Society received a letter February 11 formally rejecting their bid for use of the building.

Konkle attended the February 14 meeting of City Council, which at that time was considering renovating the courthouse for use as a public meeting room similar to the Rockford Community Cabin. The courthouse offers twice as much room as the Cabin, and would be spacious enough for larger parties than the Cabin can accommodate. At that meeting, council was informed by City Manager Michael Young that estimates to bring the court building up to current City Hall standards would be in the range of $125,000.

NEW DIGS?—The unused portion of the former county court building would more than double the space the Historical Society has for display of items. The City has given the group one year to raise $125,000 to bring the building up to current City Hall condition.

In an after-meeting discussion, Konkle said he felt the Society hadn’t been given a fair chance to present their ideas. They have hired a consultant who has helped other groups, such as the Lowell Historical Society, create museums as well as helped them come up with ways to make the facilities self-sufficient financially.

On Monday, May 9, Council felt they should explain their decision regarding the courthouse and a possible museum. Part of the annual budgeting process, just completed by Council, is to make a decision as to what to do with the former court building.

One member described the reluctance to approve the Society’s use of the building to that of a bank being asked for a loan. “Council is not in a position to loan money. You are asking for the loan of a building and you need to show you have a plan for that.”

Konkle said he heard from members of Council in June that they were interested in meeting with the Society board members, including their consultant, to talk about the project. Konkle, consultant Jerry Adams and others made a presentation Wednesday, June 29, and were asked “a ton of questions,” according to Konkle.

Konkle said the Council asked for a five-year business plan. “We had to convince them we aren’t a business,” he said.

Konkle said visions for the museum include more regular hours than the current museum, which is open seasonally and by appointment. This advice came from Adams, who said steady hours, changing exhibits to keep the museum visited regularly, and community interaction were key to a successful facility.

On Monday, Council unanimously approved a resolution giving the group six months to raise half the funds and if that deadline is met, another six months to come up with the rest of the money. Konkle said raising the money is a possibility now, with a clear commitment from Council. Adams had suggested seeking corporate sponsors, involving school groups in such projects as penny drives, and pursuing display sponsors.

Years ago, a renovation to the museum’s current facility, located in a former power building designed to distribute energy from the Rockford dam, was proposed with an estimated cost of $700,000. Renovation is desperately needed as the structure is in poor condition, lacks running water or a bathroom, and has an aged furnace that can’t even be reached for upkeep.

At that time, Konkle said, the Society was confident it could raise this much higher figure, but then the economy slumped and killed all hopes of the project. If the museum is moved, Konkle said there would be no interest on behalf of the Society to retain any ownership in the property. “It’s [the city’s] building,” he said. “They can do what they want with it.”

Konkle is thrilled with the prospect of a new museum and believes the Society is capable of creating a new facility along the high standards of other Rockford endeavors. “When City Hall was built, a lot of people thought it was too much, too elaborate. Now we are very proud of our city hall,” he said. “It is the same with the fire department, with our schools, with our farm market. Everything in Rockford is first class and then you look at our museum and it could be better. Our people work hard, but this is the best we can do with what we have.”

Konkle added, “I am absolutely delighted the City has allowed the Historical Society the opportunity to make this happen. I’m positive we will succeed. We have already begun to solicit and correct contributions.”

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