By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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Milwaukee-based developer J. Jeffers & Co. held a private groundbreaking ceremony a week ago with Mayor Tom McNamara, City Administrator Todd Cagnoni, 5th Ward Alderwoman Gabrielle Torina and state Rep. Maurice West at the 26-acre site on South Main Street.
The company then announced the groundbreaking in a news release on Friday.
“The site was once the home of a thriving multi-national company and a center for innovation,” Joshua Jeffers, CEO of J. Jeffers & Co., said in a news release. “We are thrilled to continue the tradition by reimagining Barber-Colman as a modern neighborhood with authentic historic fabric.”
The project became a political lightning rod this summer as aldermen debated whether to require the developer to reach a deal with organized labor before construction could move forward. A proposal to mandate a project labor agreement in order for redevelopment to forge ahead was defeated after McNamara cast the tiebreaking vote. The council then voted unanimously to approve a deal to redevelop the property.
Labor groups have staged an inflatable rat outside of the complex, protested in front of City Hall and driven a truck that serves as a mobile billboard of sorts criticizing McNamara, claiming he sent jobs to out-of-state workers with his vote.
Jobs and wages
J. Jeffers & Co. said in its new release Friday that the project will be constructed entirely by Illinois contractors. The developer is also required — both by state rules and under the terms of the redevelopment agreement it has with the city — to pay prevailing wages, which is the mandated minimum pay on public projects that typically match union rates.
“We have always pushed this developer, along with every other developer, to use as much local labor as humanely possible,” McNamara said Friday in a phone interview. “We want local folks on the job, and I am thrilled to hear that this project with the announcement is 100% Illinois workers.”
McNamara said he has also urged developers to use as much union labor as possible.
The project’s general contractor is Chicago-based ENC Construction & Development. The development team expects between 20% and 30% participation by minority, women, veteran and disadvantaged business enterprises during construction.
Local union leadership said their signatory contractors are also bidding on the project to make sure they’re involved in the work. J. Jeffers expects the equivalent of 400 construction jobs to be created during the process of the project.
“Our leaders of our local trades unions and our contractors are responding to the bid notices,” said Paul Nolley, executive director of Project First Rate. “We are making sure that our folks are getting bids in. … We are doing what we need to do in hopes that the developer and the (general contractor) hire qualified local contractors and employ local, educated, trained tradespeople.”
Scope and timeline
The $106 million Phase 1A of the project includes the historic adaptive reuse of three former factory buildings, including the largest structure that faces South Main at the corner of Rock and Loomis streets. A new 336-space parking deck with ground floor retail space will also be built.
The total development would happen in multiple phases and include the rehabilitation of nine blighted factory buildings, as well as new construction on the site.
The new name for the site will be Colman Yards, and it’s billed as a new residential, commercial, recreational, retail and public green space neighborhood for the community to enjoy.
The first phase is projected to be complete in mid-2025.
That phase consists of the parking structure and 215 market-rate multifamily units with studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments.
“I was in awe of how big that little town inside that area is,” said West, who was part of the groundbreaking ceremony. “Once we get to the finish line and the end goal of this project, how revolutionary it’s going to be for our community, I’m really excited about that.”
The Barber-Coman company was incorporated in 1904 to design and manufacture textile machinery, and it expanded to multiple specialty divisions over the years. It employed roughly 3,300 workers during its heyday in the 1970s and early 80s.
It ceased manufacturing operations in 2001, and the city bought the complex for $275,000 in 2002. It largely fell into disrepair over over two decades of vacancy. J. Jeffers bought the property for $500,000 as part of a multi-layered redevelopment deal with the city, which also provides millions of dollars in financial support of the project.
“The factory was a part of so many Rockfordian’s lives,” Josh Jeffers said, “and it will once again be a site that creates value for Rockford residents.”