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Article posted: 3/9/2013 8:00 AM

St. Charles candidates discuss First Street changes

By James Fuller

Non-incumbent candidates for St. Charles aldermen opined about the stagnant First Street development a couple weeks ago at a public forum. Their incumbent rivals joined them at recent endorsement interviews with the Daily Herald to reveal that the current developers -- of what was supposed to be the crown jewel of the downtown -- may soon get the boot.

Just about all the city council candidates have now expressed major doubts about whether First Street LLC can deliver on unfulfilled promises made more than seven years ago.

"I would not grant an extension to the present developers," said William Turner, the incumbent in Ward 3. "They've had enough time. They are very risk-averse. I would open it up to any and all who want to give us a plan that is viable."

Turner said residences, possibly in the form of a four-story building, will likely be needed just to ensure the city can pay off the millions of dollars of money the city invested in the project. Even then, he's not sure the taxpayers won't be on the hook to some degree.

"Right now nobody is willing to come in there, and that means the taxpayers are going to be on the hook for a lot of money," Turner said. "We've given ourselves some time through refinancing the debt, but getting the money back, I think, might be a little dicey right now."

Turner's opponent, Mario VanDerHeyden, was critical of the city's lack of progress on First Street and the debt burden of the financing involved with it during a candidates forum.

In Ward 2, incumbent Cliff Carrignan said it's time to "draw a line in the sand" with First Street LLC.

"We have been very generous," Carrignan said. "It's time to say if you want to continue with this property, let's put a plan together. If you don't, let's negotiate an exit strategy and bring in other people who see value in this property."

Carrignan agrees a mix of residential, retail and office space on First Street is key to making the project thrive.

His opponent, Art Lemke, said aldermen blew it by not considering an exit strategy in case First Street stumbled from the very beginning.

"Maybe it's time to say if you can't do this, then we look at what other options are open to us," Lemke said. "But we shouldn't just grab the first guy who comes along. We need to have some real satisfaction that they have enough depth to carry it through."

First Street is the top development priority for both incumbent Maureen Lewis and challenger Kim Malay in Ward 5.

Lewis said First Street takes precedence over even Charlestowne Mall because the city has so much of a financial stake in the $105 million First Street project. Developers are on the hook for about $67 million of that.

"Maybe it just wasn't the right project for that side of the street," Lewis said. "At this point, different developers will probably be involved as we go forward."

Lewis said there should be first-floor retail space and restaurants throughout the project with apartments probably rounding out the rest of the development.

Malay agrees a minimum of three stories of residences are probably needed to pay off the city's debt on the project. She also wants a mix of sales and property tax-generating uses on the first floors.

Malay said First Street must be considered within the context of bringing foot traffic to the entire downtown.

"We need to start making the project profitable," Malay said. "I would stop looking for just one developer, divvy it up, and let the new developers come to us."

In Ward 1, incumbent Jon Monken is also fed up with the lack of progress by First Street LLC.

"The decision has to be made if this is something they are willing and able to move forward on," Monken said. "If they can, let's do so. If not, we need to put it back out on the market for proposals."

Monken is also a fan of mixed-use development, with retail and apartments, for the project.

Challenger Ron Silkaitis, a former alderman, has already said he's not sure he would have voted for the existing First Street project. He likes the parking deck and what some of the existing businesses have brought to the city, but not the financial peril taxpayers face if the project isn't completed.

"Maybe we can do better," Silkaitis said.

Fellow Ward 1 challenger Justin Osborne also sees First Street as the centerpiece for downtown. He's open to the idea of leaving a portion of the riverfront property as open space to generate foot traffic, if that's what residents want. In a larger sense, the waning success of First Street is part of the overall problem with the downtown, according to Osborne's website.

"(It's) mostly restaurants and bars," Osborne said. "Not much else to do there. There are enough tavern/restaurants in the city. The downtown has become increasingly vacant and dull. I want to see business, particularly local business, return to our city's center."

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