Wolverine lawyer describes company vision for riverfront property

‘Light use’ could include hotel, research facility 

by BETH ALTENA

Wolverine Worldwide attorney Ken Grady described himself as a “tour guide” through a presentation designed to educate the public on the company’s efforts to redevelop riverfront acreage in downtown Rockford. On Wednesday, Sept. 21 he spent two hours outlining the steps the company made prior and during the demolition, as well as speculating on possible future use of the property. He said there was no definitive plan yet for the site, and the ideas the company had for future use would depend on needs to the community as time progresses.

Addressing first and foremost safety concerns, Grady pointed out to the crowd of about 100 residents that Wolverine partnered with experts and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Natural Resources with each step of demolition of the 100-year-old tannery, warehouse, mechanical building, offices and water treatment facility, as well as conducting ongoing environmental hazard testing during the process.

Further testing is being conducted on three test wells where substances—ammonia and cyanide—were found. Grady pointed out that this is no threat to city water, which comes from aquifers east of town and are not connected to water from the Rogue River. Grady said the results of their tests are available to the public and results of further tests will also be made available to the public. He said the arsenic found in one well and cyanide found in two wells were “really small to slightly low exceedences. We believe these are not going to be issues going forward and there is no risk to people at the site,” he stated.

Grady described how crews spent 16 months cleaning any potential hazards within the properties prior to beginning any actual demolition and had testing done to ensure the components within the buildings—pipes, walls, floors and tanks—were uncontaminated before demolition or removal.

He said the company focused on the trilogy of “reduce, reuse and recycle” in the disposal of the buildings. Any historic artifacts were retained, perhaps for reuse in the design of future shoe stores, but Grady said items had been replaced during the 100-year-old life of the tannery and buildings and experts found fewer significantly historical memorabilia than expected.

Grady also explained the company’s curious decision to wait on building the proposed new shoe store, which at the time appeared to be sudden reversal and cost the company their Brownfield designation for the project. “We were planning to build the store and we just stopped,” Grady noted. He said the retail timing was bad, and holistically there were other things going on in Rockford.

“Once the building is built, we can’t go back and tweak it,” Grady said.

He explained that a future ball field and recreation facility on Ten Mile might change the best use for the riverfront property. “The better/best approach is to step back and look at the overall picture rather than proceed immediately with just one piece.”

Current thoughts on the light development of the property may be a small hotel on Rum Creek and an environmental research facility using paddle wheels to generate green energy from the Rogue River. The new shoe store is still planned eventually, with a design to fit in well with the historic atmosphere of downtown. Parking lot property east of Main Street could be live/work units with storefronts on the main floor and living quarters on the second floor. The lots are too small to be a good fit for traditional residential housing.

Grady said Wolverine has been a responsible corporate citizen of the Rockford community since 1883 and plans to continue that tradition. “Wolverine has long, strong ties to the community,” he said.

A small group of disgruntled residents admonished the company for what they considered secretive or misleading actions during the redevelopment, and compared the Rockford tannery with other tanneries in the country, which Grady declined to address.

“I am not an expert on other tanneries and don’t know what procedures other tanneries used over the years,” Grady said.

Rockford resident Bob Winegar complimented Wolverine for being a good resident of the town over the years. “Until just a few years ago we drank the water from the river that came from 200 yards downstream,” he pointed out. “We drank that water in the height of the pigskin industry and there have been no health issues. We switched [to another source] for economic reasons, not health reasons.”

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