An attorney and frequent critic of the city of Peru showed up at Monday’s council meeting with an argument against the city selling a neglected building to a hand-picked redeveloper. And city officials came armed with responses to arguments from Julie Ajster, a Dalzell resident with a downtown Peru law office.
The city council eventually voted unanimously to sell the building at the southeast corner of Fourth and Fulton streets to Gary Hammers, a La Salle resident who has redeveloped many downtown buildings. The low-priced sale ($100) comes with a lot of strings attached.
Near the end of the meeting, Alderman Aaron Buffo, who said he originally opposed the city purchasing the building at 1830 Fourth St. from a bank after foreclosure, spoke in favor of the decision to sell the building to Hammers so it would not fall into the hands of another landlord who might neglect the building and harbor tenants who had little regard for upkeep or law and order.
“I can’t say I agree with the original purchase of the property,” Buffo said.
However, he said the building had become “questionable” in many ways. He said when he was a La Salle police officer there was a building where the police were called frequently for all sorts of similar matters ranging from drugs and domestic issues and beyond. And the city of La Salle bought that building and it was conveyed to someone who revitalized it
If the building will be revitalized and no longer be a destination for constant police calls and undercover observation, it’s a plus.
“At this point in the game I think it makes sense,” Buffo said.
Alderman Mike Radtke referred to the police being called to the building more than 130 times in the past 10 years, and said all of those police calls were costing the city money. Police chief Doug Bernabei said the police surely were called to the building more times than that, and he mentioned that illegal and questionable activities, often just outside of the property, were taking place in view from the mayor’s office as well as visitors driving past on U.S. 6.
During a speech at the beginning of the meeting, Ajster said the city had justified the purchase and then the sale to Hammers under state statutes involving Tax Increment Financing districts. Her position was that no conveyance of property “shall be made” without public disclosure and that the city must have provided a reasonable opportunity for people to provide proposals for purchase and redevelopment of the property.
However, longtime Peru corporate counsel, attorney Doug Schweickert, said the purchase and sale also are being done in accordance with the city’s home rule powers.
Schweickert cited several similar examples of the city purchasing buildings at market value and razing them or seeking redevelopment.
He said the city purchased property north of the airport from the Hollerich trust in order to create space for industrial opportunities.
In the early 1990s, the city bought several properties along U.S. 6 downtown as part of a redevelopment push, tearing down several of them to make way for new buildings such as a clinic just west of Grant Street where Josie’s tavern used to stand, buildings where Butterfly Landing and the Mirror Building stand on either side of Maud Powell Plaza, and dilapidated buildings including Hub’s Pub where clinic and eye doctor buildings stand today to the west of the current city hall.
Months of discussion:
City officials said the city did give notice that it was seeking someone to purchase and redevelop the building. City clerk Dave Bartley said he received several inquiries after an advertisement in late July but only Hammers filled out a complete proposal.
Coincidentally, according to a NewsTribune report from last fall, the city originally authorized a request for development proposals for the property on the week of Nov. 12, 2018.
The city purchased the building last summer and at the time city officials publicly expressed interest in attracting a buyer who could revitalize it.
At the end of Monday’s meeting, Ajster returned to the podium for final public comment and said she had sent Bartley a Freedom of Information Act request for the property purchases and sales for redevelopment decades ago that were mentioned by Schweickert, asking if those had taken place with just seven days’ notice. She also proposed that the city should develop policy to handle landlords who allow properties to become dilapidated, filthy inside and neglected.
Peru Mayor Scott Harl said when the building was foreclosed upon, the city could not be sure who would buy it and there was no reason to believe the next buyer would do anything to redevelop or better maintain or monitor the property. Harl said the city in years past had offered grants to business district property owners for façade redevelopment, and this case is similar to that investment. “If you don’t do it, who’s going to do it?” Harl said, rhetorically.