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Tower Building: More tenants, but some improvement projects linger

Building Maintenance Supervisor Chris Mains caulks around an old window Wednesday ElgTower Building downtown Elgin. The building built 1929 is

Building Maintenance Supervisor Chris Mains caulks around an old window Wednesday at the Elgin Tower Building in downtown Elgin. The building, built in 1929, is in need of repairs an updates. The building has gained tenants over the last two years , but has just two years to modernize its manually operated elevators. November 7, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 10, 2012 6:09AM

ELGIN — In October, the city council granted Ambassador Staffing of Illinois conditional-use approval to operate an office downtown in the Tower Building, the Depression Era structure at 100 E. Chicago St. rendered on Elgin’s “The City in the Suburbs” logo.

The agency places workers in temporary, temp-to-permanent, and contract positions in the culinary, administrative and light industrial fields.

Although this shows progress for the iconic structure, and for gradually growing back the downtown business community, the Tower Building still faces significant challenges to its operation, including a looming deadline to modernize its manually operated elevators.

The state fire marshal has mandated that the two elevators become automated by 2015, something those who oversee the building say will cost about $250,000.

“We have been applying for various grants for the elevator automation and window replacement projects, but haven’t had any success in funding these projects to date,” attorney Neal Pitcher said.

Pitcher heads the nonprofit William R. Stickling Foundation, which owns and oversees operation of the Tower Building. The organization is named after the late Bill Stickling, who bought the 15-story building in 1978 and owned it until his death in 1999.

Stickling also owned another downtown landmark, the 83-year-old Elgin Professional Building. The Professional Building was sold in 2003 for $1 million. Money from the sale went to Stickling’s estate and foundation for use on the Tower Building, which was named to the U.S. Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

Stickling formed his foundation in 1997 with attorney Ted Meyers — whose law firm had an office in the Tower Building — and Pitcher, who used to work for Meyers. Currently serving with Pitcher on the foundation are Tracy Rady, who runs her own medical billing business in the Tower Building; and Suzanne Pfaff, the former co-owner of the downtown Elgin Quizno’s restaurant.

Rady gets a break on her rent for her efforts, while Pitcher gets his office space for free. The nonprofit Downtown Neighborhood Association calls the Tower Building home, too, and pays no rent. Should the foundation ever fold, the DNA would become the building’s owner, Pitcher said.

Other changes

Pitcher noted that the city is requiring other changes to the building, including installing fire sprinklers.

“Even though the Tower Building was constructed using fireproof materials, the recent adoption of a new life-safety code has imposed new requirements upon the building for fire alarms, smoke detectors or a sprinkling system,” Pitcher said. “We have been implementing some of these improvements over the last several years, and we are working with the city fire officials to prioritize those improvements that still have to be made.”

The Tower Building opened in 1929 as a bank just before the start of the Great Depression. The fourth floor sat empty for the first 30 years before finding a tenant, according to Pitcher. Records indicate the building’s heyday was in the late 1940s, when it was about 80 percent occupied, and that it went into a steep decline with the economic downturn in the 1970s.

The foundation also would like to replace original windows with more energy-efficient ones. Pitcher has said the work would cost $1.4 million. Eventually, the foundation also would like to have the clock on the front of the building running again. But to get the hands moving once more would cost about $10,000.

In December 2010, struggles with paying its bills led to a meeting between the Stickling Foundation and William Cogley, the city’s corporate counsel. At the time, the city offered to help the group make ends meet, with stipulations that the board members step aside and that the city see the foundation’s books.

However, the foundation turned down the offer. It paid what it owed ComEd and made a payment of more than $1,300 to the city for what it owed in water bills. Other payments, including back taxes also were made.

Digging out

Since then, according to Pitcher, a nearly 60 percent increase in rental income over the last two years has helped the building’s financial situation, “but we are still digging ourselves out of the deep hole that we found ourselves in back then. Barring any unexpected emergency expenditures, we are now operating the building in the black. If our rental rates continue to climb, we would expect to be able to fund some of the new code required work over the next couple years.”

Pitcher said that in November 2009, the Tower Building had 15 tenants paying a total monthly rent of $7,419.52 and now has 22 tenants paying a collective monthly rent of $11,772.27.

In January 2011, the Tower Building also became home to the Elgin Technology Center, an incubator business organization set up on the second floor by Lasse Ingebretsen to grow small tech-related businesses.

“We filled up 11 office spaces at ETC the first year, which attracted more tech and non-tech firms to the Elgin Tower Building,” Ingebretsen said.

“Some tech companies will come and stay with us for a few months until they get up and running, while others plan to stay for two or more years. But we do need a steady rotation. We want tech companies to get their start here, then move on to bigger space elsewhere in the Tower Building and downtown Elgin.”

Ingebretsen said five tech companies (ProTechs, Creative Firestorm, Edison Avenue, Realm249, and On-Site) that had been using space on the ETC floor recently banded together to rent more than 7,000 square feet of vacant office space near Routes 20 and 25 in the city.

“That is a great success story for Elgin,” he said.

Ingebretsen is stepping down as executive director in 2013, and the organization held a meeting open to the public Thursday night to elect new officers.

“Our goal is to bring new 115 small tech companies to Elgin by 2015. It is a long journey, but as with any journey, it begins with one small step,” Ingebretsen said.

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