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Dueling Plans For Former St. Mary's Hospital In DeKalb

Peter Medlin
The property on Fisk Avenue.

Originally built in 1922, the gothic-inspired building on Fisk Ave. in DeKalb used to house St. Mary’s hospital; it sat vacant for the last 25 years.

Over the past few years, however, interest in reviving the building has returned. And with that interest comes a debate over whether it should be a boutique hotel or a local non-profit.

Nicholas Cronauer, a DeKalb attorney and developer, has held the contract for the building for more than a year. He, like others who previously eyed the property, first looked into creating luxury apartments in the space, before deciding to convert it into a boutique, one-of-a-kind hotel.

“Personally, this is my belief, there is just a shift in culture and people that they want something more unique,” said Cronauer. “A lot of the big franchise corporate restaurants are closing and more boutique restaurants are kind of popping up.”

The boutique also would have space for other businesses, including a restaurant, generating even more tax revenue for the city on top of the hotel and sales tax in the now-abandoned building.

The other suitor for the building is local non-profit Safe Passage, which provides services, programs and transitional housing for survivors of domestic violence.

Safe Passage has been zeroing in on the building for around three years, but they've been unable to purchase it because of funding cuts that kept them in “survival mode” during the Illinois budget crisis.

Safe Passage's unique needs require a unique space, and the former hospital checks almost every box.

“The hospital building is extremely suitable,” said Safe Passage executive director Mary Ellen Schaid. “The way it will have corridors -- that’s exactly what we need, and it’s large enough that we will be able to increase our shelter beds, we will have more space for our staff, more meeting space, and we’ll just operate better as an organization.”

Safe Passage has struggled with space issues for years, forcing them to turn away 10-15 survivors per month, sending them to other domestic violence prevention centers.

Both parties have the means to purchase the building outright, however, the larger burden will be renovating a building that has sat vacant for so many years -- a multi-million dollar expense.

“The building has fallen into some disrepair,” said DeKalb First Ward Alderman David Jacobson. “There was some vandalism going on there. There were some safety concerns with that building, which is why the city asked them to board it up a year ago as the windows were being broken out pretty regularly.”

In order to help pay for it, the boutique hotel would rely on $2 million of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funding from city, where future property tax gains from the hotel and other businesses would go toward offsetting the cost of the initial investment.

And since it has been more than 20 years since DeKalb's TIF lines were drawn, this could be the last chance that a project to renovate the building could be done with the funds before the TIF area expires.

If Safe Passage purchases the building, they would not ask for TIF funds. Instead, they are focused on raising all of the money for the renovations on their own.

“We’ve been engaging with professionals around trauma-informed design," said Lynnea Erickson Laskowski, communication and prevention services director at Safe Passage. "We’ve been engaging with professionals around fundraising and the economic impact of us in that building versus somebody else. So, we really believe that we have the knowledge and information on our side to make this a successful move.”

But aside from pure fundraising, Cronauer, the hotel developer, believes it’s likely TIF funds would be needed to pay for such an expensive project.

“All of the numbers I’ve ran, I don’t see that project would be feasible economically, unless you want to lose a lot of money, without the TIF aspect,” he said.

Cronauer's proposal still needs to be finalized for council approval.