The Hauberg Civic Center

If the City of Rock Island is unwilling to devote the resources to operate and upgrade the Hauberg Civic Center, it’s hard to imagine a better owner than Bridges Catering.

Bridges – now based in Princeton, Iowa – is an established family company whose owners have deep roots in Rock Island. It plans to renovate and maintain the Hauberg mansion consistent with its historic character, expand public access, and use the site for both food preparation and events with fewer than 100 people. Shifting the mansion, its carriage house, and grounds into Bridges’ hands would add property and sales taxes to Rock Island’s coffers, and eliminate from the budget an event-rental facility (operated by the Parks & Recreation department) whose financial performance is in the red and getting worse.

In an interview last week, Bridges co-owner Bill Healy was as good a salesperson as one could hope for – promising to be a good steward and willing to contractually commit to his pledges.

“I don’t see as a Rock Island resident how this plan can be a bad thing,” he said. “We’re trying to bring a lot of jobs into Rock Island. We’re trying to bring a very, very big sales-tax base. We trying to put something on the property-tax roll. And we’re trying to take something that is not being used [much] at all and use it for the exact function” for which it’s intended.

Yet as the city council wrestles with whether to start the process of selling Hauberg, it has to understand that the land and buildings shouldn’t just be considered “surplus” property and handed to what the council deems the best bidder. Because of its significance as a historic property and the fact that it was given to the city, its future deserves a thorough discussion – of both the Bridges proposal and alternatives. The prospects for that still look dubious given the plan on the table, and it could go either way – a too-quick embrace of private ownership, or a knee-jerk rejection of it.

As a Rock Island resident and taxpayer, I’m excited about the possibility of Bridges Catering taking over the Hauberg Civic Center (located at 24th Street and 13th Avenue) – if the city would otherwise let it languish. But I desperately wish the timing and process were better, and I hope the city council takes time to evaluate all its options.

Raising the Alarm

One problem with all of this was perhaps unavoidable. Because talks with Bridges Catering were preliminary, and because Bridges had not yet publicly stated its interest in the property, an agenda item declaring Hauberg surplus property and putting it up for bid was almost certain to raise alarm. Without a named suitor, citizens would imagine the worst scenario: the loss to the community of a local historical treasure.

And raise alarm it did at the January 18 city-council meeting, even though Mayor Dennis Pauley removed the item from the agenda.

But Bridges stepped forward a week after that meeting, and now the public has better information.

A second problem won’t be so easy to address. City staff appears to be working backward from the assumption of selling Hauberg to Bridges Catering, going through the legal requirements to a clear endgame.

On the one hand, the speed with which the city has proceeded is understandable. Bridges Catering approached the city about buying Hauberg late last year, and the company needs to know in relatively short order whether it will be able to proceed with its plans for the site or if it should continue searching for a new home.

On the other hand, city staff appears far too eager to get rid of Hauberg, without much consideration of alternatives.

This is concerning for a number of reasons.

First, Hauberg – built from 1909 to 1911 – is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2009 it was included on the list of Rock Island’s 100 Most Significant Unprotected Structures. It has not been locally landmarked, so it doesn’t have protections requiring, for example, historically appropriate renovations.

Also known as the Denkmann-Hauberg House and the Tulip Mansion, the house was designed by Robert C. Spencer for John Hauberg (a historian) and his wife Susanne (the daughter of Frederick Denkmann, a partner in the Weyerhäuser-Denkmann Lumber Company).

Second, the Hauberg family gave the property to the city in 1956. While a prohibition preventing the City of Rock Island from selling the property expired in 2006, how it came to be in city hands should certainly be a factor in its future.

Third, although issues with Hauberg – diminishing revenues, the need for a new roof and other infrastructure improvements – are nothing new, the facility’s operational deficit is relatively small. Hauberg costs the city money each year – roughly $40,000 in expenses against revenues – and it’s going to cost more in the future, but it’s not a giant millstone around the city’s neck.

Fourth, if the city moves forward with the sale of the property, it would be taking an action that seems premature in the context of larger changes likely to happen within the Parks & Recreation department. A consultant hired to evaluate the department only delivered its final report on January 10, and it never mentions selling Hauberg. Moreover, it suggests that the public might support a tax increase for the Parks & Recreation department.

Given the consultant’s recommendations, this process will look to some people like the city is putting the cart before the horse: opting to sell Hauberg before exploring alternatives.

As Rock Island resident and Augustana Professor Megan Quinn wrote to me in an e-mail after Bridges Catering announced its interest in the property: “I still think the city is rushing this and should put a moratorium on committing to a sale or lease of Hauberg until citizens are permitted to bring ideas to the table and more study of the costs and benefits of various options are done.” She said that “many neighborhood groups are meeting and brainstorming alternatives to selling or leasing the property.”

She continued: “Assuming the level of public access to Hauberg will be the same under private ownership is short-sighted and naïve. Over the long term, the sale of public assets, assets that make Rock Island unique and give it a sense of place, is a losing strategy and not financially sustainable. So many more considerations need to be made than the immediate benefit of the couple hundred thousand [dollars] the city will receive. What’s the cost to future generations if access to a historic landmark is diminished? What’s the cost to the city of Rock Island’s reputation as a place that values historic preservation?”

The Need for More Study

The Rock Island Parks & Recreation Department Operational Audit & Business Plan Study offered a path forward with the Hauberg Civic Center: “This facility should basically only be open for rentals or events. Strong consideration should be given to having the facility managed and operated by a private vendor. It also must be realized that the building needs substantial infrastructure improvements.”

Among action items suggested for the “middle term” (within two to three years), it recommends that the city “explore the viability of contracting for the management and operation of Hauberg Civic Center.” That indicates Colorado-based consultant Ballard*King & Associates didn’t envision selling Hauberg. Bridges’ Healy said his company has no interest in leasing Hauberg from the city.

There is a reading of the report as a whole that might support the sale of Hauberg – eventually. Among items to happen in the first year is evaluating “the city’s commitment to parks and recreation facilities and services.” The report further states: “If services are going to be reduced, a specific analysis will need to be completed to determine which facilities and parks should be closed, services reduced, or management moved to another organization.”

But that’s no justification for putting Hauberg up for immediate sale. The consultant’s report is a five-year plan for the entirety of the Parks & Recreation department, and the suggestion to potentially close some parks and facilities explicitly calls for further study. Most importantly, the specific recommendations for Hauberg are clear enough that the consultant saw the facility as a long-term part of the city’s inventory.

Rock Island City Manager Thomas Thomas said the city is still evaluating the report: “It’s an ongoing process. We just got the report. We’re going through it piece-by-piece.”

It’s also important to stress that the staff report to the city council on the resolution accepting bids for Hauberg mischaracterized the Parks & Recreation consultant’s final recommendations, claiming that the consultant suggested the city “divest itself of some park properties so that proper maintenance on the remaining properties can be done.” That was certainly one longer-term option, but the report was also clear that additional funding through a tax increase might be supported by the public.

In fairness, if the city would ultimately conclude that it had no stomach for an ongoing operational financial deficit at Hauberg, or for needed capital improvements, or for renovations that would make it more attractive as a banquet and meeting facility, it’s probably better to sell the property sooner rather than later – especially when it has what might be considered an ideal purchaser.

But that conclusion should be arrived at through study and consideration by the city council, and it shouldn’t be an assumption as it now appears to be.

The study certainly paints a grim picture of the current situation, noting that “with a decreasing population base in the city and a desire not to increase taxes, funding for parks and recreation has remained static in the past five-plus years.”

But the report doesn’t conclude that the funding status quo must hold. A September 2015 online survey that was part of the study asked: “Would you support an increase in tax levy to support the indoor and outdoor facility improvements that mean the most to you and your household?” Only 17 percent (out of 549 respondents) said they would not, nearly 23 percent said they would, and more than 27 percent said they might.

That’s different, of course, from asking specifically about increased funding for Hauberg Civic Center, and the loaded wording likely skewed responses. Yet for a question about a potential tax increase, the positive responses were fairly high.

The survey also asked: “Do you feel that the City of Rock Island should continue to operate and maintain the current inventory of indoor and outdoor facilities?” More than 73 percent of 549 respondents said “yes.”

Filling in the Blanks

Rock Island City Manager Thomas makes no apologies for how the question of Hauberg’s future has been handled so far. The January 18 agenda item – now delayed indefinitely – was merely a first step that was necessary to “even have a conversation” about the Bridges proposal, he said last week. “The sale was never on the table at that meeting.”

Thomas said that the next step will be a city-council study session on the Bridges proposal, after which the application for bids might be put back on the agenda. The Hauberg Civic Center was not on the agenda for the council’s February 1 study session or regular meeting, but a study session is expected to be scheduled for later this month.

The January 18 agenda item would have declared the Hauberg buildings (and the 10 acres of gardens and woodlands on which they sit) as surplus property, and it would have approved advertising for bids, accepting offers through February 10. City staff anticipated city-council action on the bids at its February 22 meeting.

Sale of the property would require approval from three-quarters of the seven-member council.

The resolution would have put restrictions on any sale, requirements that would move forward with the property regardless of its owner: “It is required that the existing buildings and grounds shall remain and shall be rehabilitated by the purchaser in a manner acceptable to the City of Rock Island. There shall be no fundamental alterations allowed to the exteriors of any buildings that are not applicable to the appropriate time period of the buildings. ... Additionally, should the buyer wish to build any other structure(s) on the property, the esthetics of that structure will have to be architecturally accurate to the time period of the property. Purchaser shall agree that the property will remain an attraction for residents and visitors. Lastly, the City shall have the first right of refusal to purchase the property back should the buyer ever desire to sell.”

Thomas agreed when I asked whether the city moved so quickly on putting the property up for bid because it had a concrete proposal. “This was really the first time someone had come to us with a real legitimate business venture that would ensure the integrity of the facility but also allow for a well-known business to bring in jobs and services to this community,” he said.

So it’s easy to understand the rationale for fast-tracking the potential sale of Hauberg. The proposal is to an extent time-sensitive, and this resolution was merely a first step. The city council still has the option not to put the property out to bid. And it is under no obligation to accept the highest bid, or any bid at all.

And now that Bridges Catering has discussed its plans, Rock Island residents and officials can evaluate the prospect of selling Hauberg with more context. “We’ll fill in the blanks with a lot more information,” Thomas said. “Because I think a lot of opinions are being based on not knowing all the facts.”

Bridges Catering’s Healy said he thought the city council was “lukewarm at best” to his company’s proposal based on the agenda item being pulled.

I twice e-mailed five questions to the city’s mayor and council members about Hauberg and Bridges. Only two council members – Ward 4’s Stephen L. Tollenaer and Ward 5’s Kate Hotle – actually answered the questions.

Tollenaer expressed support for selling Hauberg to Bridges.

Hotle – whose district includes Hauberg – wrote that she opposed the sale at this time: “There are still too many unanswered variables, and all the alternatives to maintaining the building have not been discussed or considered.” She also said that the building needs to be landmarked, and that contractual requirements on preserving its historic character would be insufficient.

Mayor Dennis Pauley wrote that he “pulled the Hauberg item off the agenda to obtain additional information.” Ward 2’s Virgil J. Mayberry and Ward 7’s Chuck Austin III all gave general responses indicating they were undecided.

Ward 1’s Ivory Deaon Clark, Ward 3’s P.J. Foley, and Ward 6’s Joshua Schipp did not respond to my questions.

The Case for Bridges

Healy said there is an urgency to council consideration of his company’s proposal, but he also said he’s presented no deadline to city officials. He said his family was on vacation and out of the country for the January 18 council meeting, and he was greeted upon his return with the uproar caused by the Hauberg agenda item. “We didn’t expect the negative backlash that came out from this,” he said.

“I do not know why it was pushed ahead like it was,” he said. “If we wanted it pushed ahead, I would have made it a week when we were here.”

He said Bridges has secured financing that includes purchase of the property along with renovation expenses, plus capital improvements that might cost as much as $2 million, but he has no concrete timeline from his lender: “We’ve been actively working with them, and they know that this is an ongoing process. ... We don’t have a drop-dead date.”

Still, he said, Bridges would like an answer in the reasonably near future: “The sooner the better. We would like to know our direction – whether we need to start looking for another property.”

Healy said his company over the past two years has already looked at 17 buildings in Rock Island and three sites where it could build. “Everything that we saw needed about the same work as Hauberg,” he said. “We want to move our business. Wherever we move it to, we’re going to have to spend money renovating. We know that. So that’s already a cost we figured for.”

Because most of Bridges’ business is in the Quad Cities, he said, the company is paying significant amounts of money for travel and wages that would be slashed by moving: “The cost savings from bringing our business into the Quad Cities [from Princeton] would more than make up for that. ... The amount of money that we are currently spending right now just in travel costs and labor costs associated with travel honestly almost pays that note.”

And Hauberg is an especially good location for Bridges given the company’s exclusive catering contracts with Abbey Station, the Quad City Botanical Center, and Skellington Manor – all in Rock Island.

But citizens of Rock Island are more interested in how Bridges would manage the property. For one thing, Healy said, Bridges would not build any additional structures on the property, and it wouldn’t tear down any buildings. The carriage house would be converted into the company’s main kitchen.

Current listed hours indicate Hauberg is open for 27 hours each week from Tuesday through Thursday. Healy said the public would have continued access to the grounds, and access to the mansion at least 40 hours per week – whenever the building is being staffed. That would include normal business hours during the week, but also often on weekends. Anybody could visit the mansion, he said.

“It would be a promotional opportunity for us,” he said. “Because you could hopefully walk through that door and say, ‘Wow. Look what they did to this. I want to have my daughter’s 17th birthday here.’ The nicer that we make it, the more ... people would want to come there.”

He had a similar approach to capital improvements, from necessary ones such as a new roof to ADA compliance to making the mansion’s organ functional again. He said Bridges is “absolutely” willing to commit to renovations consistent with the building’s time period.

“There’s an allure, there’s a charm to that building,” he said. “If you take things like that away, it’s not what it is.” And “if we don’t make it beautiful, we don’t have any chance of selling it” as a venue for events. “I do not think it is a bookable, functional facility right now in today’s times.”

And he said his company proposed including the city’s right of first refusal in any sale agreement: “We brought that to the city. ... We feel that would only be fair.”

On a financial level, he said, the benefits to the city would include more than $100,000 in sales taxes – some of which the city is getting now, but all of which the city would lose if Bridges locates in another Illinois city. Property taxes, he estimated, would be in the five figures. And when you combine those with current operational deficit of Hauberg, he said, “it’s about a $200,000 [annual] swing for the City of Rock Island.”

He concluded: “I think there’s a way to calm people’s fears and try to get across that what we’re trying to do is a genuine good thing. ...

“I know some of the hearts and minds will not change. We understand that. We just don’t want the minds of 30 or 40 people that are staunch advocates for preservation of it to outweigh what could potentially be a couple-hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year difference in city spending.”

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