RACINE — Machinery Row developer Rodney Blackwell says he is working on a deal that would bring not just activity to the second of his two large riverfront buildings, but also jobs.
At the two-year mark since the estimated $65 million Machinery Row redevelopment was announced, Blackwell on Thursday said he’s been working on a deal that would bring a job-creation component to the Water Street project. He’s bound by a confidentiality agreement, but described the venture as something like light manufacturing, but not exactly.
Blackwell, managing owner of Davenport, Iowa-based Financial District Properties, said the unnamed party wants more space than he’d have available inside 900 Water St., so that would bring the second building, at 820 Water St., into play. Much of 900 Water is earmarked for the creation of about 100 loft apartments, likely with some indoor parking, Blackwell has said for months.
The pending project involves an international company and “would blend well with housing,” he said. Blackwell hopes to cement the deal within 30 to 60 days.
Those negotiations have delayed the start of construction, Blackwell said, because the unnamed project would affect how all the pieces will fit together.
Blackwell and public officials announced the Machinery Row building project on June 10, 2014, at the riverfront property. It was dubbed Machinery Row after the section of riverfront by that name in the Rootworks river redevelopment plan.
In cost, it would dwarf any building project Racine has ever seen.
The plan is to redevelop 20 riverfront acres north of Water Street and east of Marquette Street. The area encompasses all of the former Azarian Marina, 726 Water St., and two large, three-story former industrial buildings that Case Corp. constructed between 1908 and 1915.
The plan also includes creating a public thoroughfare all along the Machinery Row riverfront. Blackwell is donating half the value, and the city has obtained state money to buy the other half.
Award-winning architectural firm Engberg Anderson of Milwaukee is designing the project.
The one bit of visible progress so far was this spring’s removal of the northernmost section of the 900 Water St. building, which previously had 500,000 square feet of floor space.
Behind the scenes, city and state officials confirm that Machinery Row is still plodding forward.
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“Clearly, I’d love to see the project completed or much further than it is now,” said state Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, an early proponent of redeveloping the Root River corridor. “It’s still moving forward — just at a much slower pace than people would like.”
“The good news is: The city and developer are still engaged and want to get it done,” Mason said. He said he attended a meeting with Blackwell about the project less than a month ago.
“No one’s backing away from the project,” Mason promised.
City Administrator Tom Friedel echoed that. On Thursday he said Blackwell had been in Racine just the day before to talk about the project. “Believe it or not, things are progressing,” Friedel said.
About the lack of construction so far, Friedel said, “(Blackwell) has a lot of projects, and we knew this could take a while. Did we expect more (progress)? Sure, everyone did.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Friday that Machinery Row’s slow start is “an example of how hard these (brownfield) projects are to put together.
“I’m glad they’re not rushing in to do just anything,” Vos said, “but it’s a little frustrating for people who want to see something happen.”
Racine Mayor John Dickert did not return messages last week requesting comment for this story.
Delayed by tenants
One big obstacle for Machinery Row, Friedel pointed out, were the two tenants Blackwell inherited from the previous owner of 900 Water St.; together they were storing many, many semitrailer loads of merchandise inside. Both tenants overstayed their agreements by many months and had to be evicted.
Even now, much of that material is still inside, abandoned — and Blackwell said it’s unclear whether he can get rid of the stuff, because someone may have a lien on part of it.
Both former Case buildings are covered in an asbestos-containing material that is not original. Blackwell said he is debating whether to have that material removed, at the cost of a few million dollars, or encapsulated, at somewhat less cost. There is a slight chance of the latter, he said.
“It’ll probably be a year just taking the shell off,” he remarked.
“I’m still of the opinion that this project’s going to come to fruition,” Friedel said. “Look at (Blackwell’s) track record: He’s slow, but he gets things done.”
“No one’s backing away from the project.”
— State Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine