DANVILLE, Ill. (WCIA)– The tallest building in Vermilion County now belongs to the City of Danville per a judge’s order Thursday morning, moving the 100-year-old Collins “Bresee” Tower one step closer to a proposed demolition.
Previous owners Chris and Jeri Collins plan to appeal the order, insisting there’s an investor-backed plan to refurbish the 12-story structure. Danville Mayor Rickey Williams Jr. said “no one has ever come through with a viable plan” and he’s ready to spend the millions necessary to tear it down.
The building at the corner of Vermilion and Main Streets in downtown Danville was constructed for First National Bank in 1918 and remains on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s been vacant for more than 15 years and its terra cotta façade started to deteriorate in the last decade posing concern that pieces could separate from the building and fall. The city put up a wide-perimeter wire fence three years ago to mitigate any harm to pedestrians and motorists, blocking a lane on Main Street in the process.
A condemned sign is tacked to the door these days and the building is inaccessible to the public and even the Collins who owned the building up until around 9 a.m. Thursday morning.
The Collinses live in Columbia, Missouri but “Danville is my hometown,” Chris Collins said. “My family has been here since the 1840s.”
The building was renamed for the couple when they purchased it in 2018.
“This building is going to be back to its former glory. And we are going to change the entire face of downtown Danville,” Collins said directly following the judicial deed hearing brought forth by a petition from the city.
Despite the owner’s verbal commitment, Vermilion County Judge Derek Girton declared the tower abandoned in February giving the owners about a month to come up with a plan to reconstruct or tear down the building. Judge Girton said that never happened before ordering the deed be transferred to the city.
“We are definitely going to win on the appeal,” Collins asserted confidently.
He represented himself in court Thursday citing an inability to afford ongoing attorney fees. He assured reporters the lawyer who previously handled his case — Neal Smith of Robbins Schwartz law firm headquartered in Chicago — would be back for the appeal.
In an argument that Smith provided Collins ahead of Thursday’s hearing, he argued the building did not meet the legal requirements necessary for the property to be deemed abandoned, citing the fact that the property has not been tax delinquent for two or more years, nor have bills for water service for the property been outstanding for two or more years, “but the judge declared the property abandoned anyway.”
Girton dismissed the argument as moot given the abandonment order was entered months ago and the hearing at hand was over the deed. He did make the latter order appealable at Collins’s request.
“In the interim, as I said, we are making sure that we secure the building, and we are doing everything that we can to be prepared when we’re fully authorized to demolish the building,” said Danville Mayor Rickey Williams Jr.
The demolition of the tower and the adjacent old courthouse annex would cost an estimated $2.5-$3 million, according to the Mayor who said he was referencing preliminary estimates from 2018. WCIA has requested a copy of that appraisal.
Collins said he still has plans to transform the building into a “1920s-themed hotel” first discussed years ago. The former owner estimated the price tag of the renovation to be in the neighborhood of $5 million, although there was no formal proposal available. Collins said he’s “absolutely” confident investors would cover the cost.
In contrast, the cost of repair was said to range “from at least $7.6 million to $11 million,” according to the February Order Declaring the Property Abandoned. Girton’s order cited an Opinion of Probable Costs prepared by Springfield architectural firm Melotte Morse Leonatti Parker, Ltd. in December. The order said, “None of the Defendants have presented anything to the Court which contests the said Opinion of Probable Costs.”
“We actually have somebody ready to go. We have one of the largest construction companies,” he claimed.
“I want to be very, very clear: There are not investors, there is no money to secure this building,” the mayor said when asked why the city would rather spend money to tear the historic building down rather than invest in keeping it.
“I have met with probably six potential investors, I couldn’t tell you. I’ve talked to, there’s probably a dozen or more on the phone over the years,” Williams continued. “No one has ever had the financial resources, nor has anyone ever given me an actual plan with a timeline with any kind of architectural drawings.”
Non-profit Landmarks Illinois put the building on its 2012 list of most endangered historic places in the state meaning, “we believe it has historic significance and there is a solution to solve what made it endangered in the first place,” said Quinn Adamowski, the regional advocacy manager for the non-profit’s Springfield-based office.
Adamowski said at least two investors have expressed interest in the tower in years past, one seriously, and another inquired with the non-profit in the last week. Nothing formal has been put to paper at any point as far as Adamowski could tell.
“There is no possibility for this to be reimagined at this point,” Williams said when asked if there’s any world where redevelopment conversations continue.
Adamowski said Bresee Tower “deserves a hearing in the developer world” and it “doesn’t make economic sense” to tear it down.
The mayor said the city “hopes to save some items of historical significance,” including a beloved clock and the chandeliers still inside the building.
Williams said there are no plans at this point for the empty lot that would be left after the proposed demolition.
Collins said he plans to approach city council with a proposal for reconstruction in the coming weeks.
This article has been updated to correct what was previously cited as an estimate of the cost of the demolition was in fact an estimate of the cost of repair. More detail was added to better explain the possible costs of both proposed steps forward.