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Tower Building could be left largely empty

Looking from lower roElgTower Building downtown Elgin.  Sun-Times Medifile photo

Looking from the lower roof of the Elgin Tower Building in downtown Elgin. Sun-Times Media file photo

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Updated: March 18, 2013 6:48AM

ELGIN — Elgin’s iconic if troubled Tower Building was dealing with another crisis Friday — one that could require tenants to vacate the 15-story concrete and limestone structure because of issues with its elevators.

Late Friday afternoon, city officials were communicating with Neal Pitcher, who heads the William R. Stickling Foundation which owns and oversees the building, clarifying which of two types of elevator inspections is needed and when in order to keep the building open.

Friday morning, The Courier-News obtained an email sent to Tower tenants Thursday night by Pitcher, In it, Pitcher stated he received a call that evening from Karin Jones, the president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, “advising me that a member or members of DNA’s board of directors have offered to personally contribute the $8,500 that we need to have the five-year elevator inspection done. The Stickling Foundation will treat this as a loan.” The DNA has its office in the Tower, 110 E. Chicago St.

Sources said an annual inspection is what needs to be done ASAP as the foundation is eight months overdue for one. The five-year inspection — called a load test — needs to be conducted by May.

“It is really heartwarming to realize how many people care so much about this old building. Maybe all of us should reassess joining DNA. I am also pleased to advise you that we have two new tenants in suites 802 and 804-805 as of yesterday,” Pitcher wrote.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are completely out of the woods on the elevator matter as the test must be observed by the city’s elevator inspector and it may be a couple weeks before we can get an inspector out to observe the test. I don’t know if the city will allow us to use the elevators until their inspector can come out. I will let you know as soon as I find out,” Pitcher added.

Earlier Thursday, Assistant City Manager Rick Kozal emailed Pitcher about the matter of being months behind on a state-required inspection of its two elevators and told Pitcher that the city would not help pay for them or for any required repairs.

“As you are aware, the elevators must be inspected by 15 February. In the event the elevators have not been inspected, the city will be initiating enforcement action on Monday, 18 February prohibiting the continued operation of the elevators absent the required inspections. This three-day grace period will allow adversely affected tenants to begin making alternative arrangements for their working spaces,” Kozal wrote.

As such, while the elevators remain inoperable for lack of testing, businesses could not be open to clients or the public, but could access the building to remove items and make arrangements for locating elsewhere. Offices on the first floor, such as the Downtown Neighborhood Association, could still stay open.

Pitcher forwarded Kozal’s email to tenants and told them, “While I am working frantically to address the elevator inspection issue, I wanted all of you to be aware of where we presently stand on this matter. If I was suddenly able to collect all of the back rent owed to the Tower Building, we could probably pay for the $8,500 elevator test that the city is wanting done, but realistically, I don’t see that happening in the time frame that the city is imposing on us.”

He directed tenants to ask Kozal what they could or could not do after Monday, “as I don’t have any further information than what is in the below letter.”

Friday afternoon, Mayor Dave Kaptain said it was his understanding the inspections still had to happen by Monday or at least be scheduled by then.

“It’s all coming to a head. There are at least a half dozen other problems they have to address,” Kaptain said, noting the other elevator inspection due in the spring and issues with a sprinkler system.

Along with the inspections for its manually operated elevators, the Tower faces a looming deadline for modernizing them. Last decade, the State Fire Marshal’s Office mandated that the two elevators become automated by 2015, something those who oversee the building say will cost about $250,000.

The building has faced its share of ups and downs over the decades.

Two years ago, the Elgin Technology Center — an incubator for small, entrepreneurial tech firms — opened in the building. Friday afternoon, ETC Executive Director Michael Copeland said the group now also works out of two other locations and plans to stay in the Tower Building in the hopes the elevator matter is positively resolved.

But there have been other recent woes, including over the first weekend of this month, when a water pipe to a sink on the unoccupied 12th floor froze and broke. Pitcher told The Courier-News that water trickled down several pipe shafts, the main stairwell and other openings — all the way to the basement in the case of the main pipe shaft. Water dripped out of some light fixtures on the 11th through eighth floors. He said there was no damage to the building other than a ceiling and wall needing to be repainted on the ninth floor.

In December 2010, struggles with paying its bills led to a meeting between the Stickling Foundation and William Cogley, the city’s corporate counsel. During the hourlong discussion, the city offered through Cogley to help the group make ends meet, provided it get to see the foundation’s books. The foundation turned down the offer and continued to operate as it has.

Prior to that meeting, the foundation paid what it owed to electric utility ComEd, made a payment of more than $1,300 to the city for what it owed in water bills, and was working to meet other bills, including back taxes, with the help of unnamed financial backers.

The Tower Building opened in 1929 as a bank just before the start of the Great Depression. It was added to the U.S. Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places in 2002. The Tower is rendered on Elgin’s “The City in the Suburbs” logo, which was created in 2010.

The organization currently overseeing the building is named after the late Bill Stickling, who bought the 15-story building in 1978 and owned it until his death in 1999. 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 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. Pitcher has said that should the foundation ever fold, the DNA would become the building’s owner.

Messages left for Pitcher about the elevator issues were not returned by Friday evening.

On Saturday, Jason Pawlowski of the DNA said that a board member from the organization offered to pay for the needed inspection. However, as of 5:30 p.m. Friday, he had not heard if the inspection had been scheduled.

“On Thursday, after it was made clear to us that the Stickling Foundation was not able to pay for the needed elevator inspection by the deadline, our board stepped up and promised to cover the cost through a note or a mortgage,” Pawlowski said. “Essentially we offered to pay for the inspection.”

A DNA member offered to make the donation to the DNA, which would then turn around and write the check directly to the inspection company, Pawlowski said.

As part of the DNA’s mission is to retain business in downtown Elgin and maintain its historical buildings, it seemed like keeping the building operational was part of that mission, Pawlowski said. “We are able to retain the 20-25 businesses that are in the Tower Building.”

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