Everyone is welcome, but please no more vandalism
By BETH ALTENA
BridgeWay Community Church Pastor Ron Aulbach can see God’s handiwork in this one on many levels. In July the church took ownership of the dilapidated former Childsdale paper mill on Childsdale Avenue on the banks of the Rogue River. The price couldn’t be better—it was free. With 17 lovely acres, a long stretch of wooded, scenic riverfront, and a building. With room for improvement.
“If it wasn’t for the contamination this probably would have been developed,” said Aulbach of the long, rambling structure that dates back more than 100 years. On the market for years, the building has been unused and more or less empty since the last company trying to make a go of the facility gave up (see related story, page 5).
Aulbach said the building, unsafe in many places, still housed industrial chemicals, refuse from paper manufacturing, and a lot of bad stuff. A $260,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency allowed long-needed cleanup of the property to take place this summer. According to Aulbach, the crew in charge of the clean-up process had guards on site to keep everyone away and attended to the mess complete with hazardous materials suits for protection.
Inside, vandals pretty much “broke everything breakable and smashed everything smashable.” Aulbach said he tries to look on the bright side and considers the actions a nudge to church members to hurry up and gut the building. He even left a six-pack of soda and snacks in the building with a note urging caution in the unsafe environment and asking visitors to please respect the investment the church is making in the property.
Today he asks the community to help out and keep an eye on the structure as the next phase of its life begins. Demolition will remove two-thirds of the building, all the parts that remain green from the last paint job. That work gave the building its common nickname of the “big green monster.” Passersby can distinguish the section that will remain by the new paint job in a less offensive tan. Aulbach hopes in the coming months that suspicious activity will be reported to authorities to minimize future damage.
Obtaining ownership of the mill has been a process in the works for more than two years and closing took place on July 15 of this year. BridgeWay Church, in its twelfth year, has been meeting at East Rockford Middle School since day one, a relationship with Rockford Public Schools for which members are very grateful. However, it has all along been their plan to someday find a home of their own.
“In all real estate, the key is location, location, location, and this is a killer location,” he stated. “God must love Rockford.”
“I’ve had a heart for this place since high school,” said Aulbach. As a teenager attending Rockford Public Schools, he was very much interested in the paper industry and actually applied many times to the paper company. Even after he graduated from college with his degree in engineering in the paper business, he couldn’t seem to “get through the gatekeepers,” and was never given an interview.
A career later, working at other paper mills around the country, Aulbach felt God leading him in a new direction. He was with BridgeWay from the start twelve years ago when the church formed and finds it ironic that he is back in the building he wanted to work in, but in an entirely different role.
The church could have built a building on property it owns out where members meet now, but church leaders hoped for something more central to Rockford proper. They began having conversations with the owner of the mill, and eventually the deal worked out in a way that was affordable.
“Our very next dollars are going to be spent on the demolition,” said Aulbach, citing concerns about the safety of the section to be torn down. “We hope to have it down before snow flies and then people will be able to see a view of the river no one has seen for over one hundred years.”
He explained that renovation of the property might take time, as funds need to be raised for each portion. Among future improvements will be safe access steps from the building site down to river’s edge. He hopes the community will see the property as something for everyone to enjoy, not just church members. He is aware of the history of the area, which used to be a bustling town with lots of residents and a booming economy. “It was sad over the years watching this become more and more rundown,” he described. “We want to have a lasting impact on the community, and making this a viable, vibrant area with life in it again is a good impact. We want to bring life back to Childsdale. God is leading us to give new life to something old.”
Aulbach said there literally is no timeframe to the eventual move from ERMS to the mill property. In the short term he invites the public to take a moment to write on the newly-painted black concrete wall their own thoughts on what Jesus means to them. “I know we are taking a chance here, but we hope people will respect it,” he said. The wall is located next to the road along the part of the building that will be demolished, so time is limited for expression there.
Aulbach said the stretch of river fronting the church is a favorite of Rogue River kayakers, and is known as “the shoot” because of the rapids caused by the dam destroyed by a flood in the 1980s. Likewise, fishermen appreciate this part of the river because of good fish habitat.
He hopes visitors and those who watch the redemption of the building will be patient as the process plays out and respectful of the work going on there “Everyone is welcome, but please no more vandalism,” he said.
Now gutted, the remaining section should offer little appeal to vandals. As the church volunteers cleaned up what seemed like—and may have been —one hundred years of accumulated debris, some joked at Aulbach’s expense. “A couple people came up and said, ‘Hey Ron, I found your resume!’ “
Anyone with memories about the property, or Rockford Paper Board, especially its historic past, is invited to share. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or drop off at the Squire newspaper office and we will pass the information along to Aulbach, and maybe publish it as well.