Historic smokestack owner gets $20K from Bloomington enterprise group, none yet from HPC

Bloomington’s urban enterprise association (BUEA) voted unanimously on Wednesday to award Peerless Development a $20,000 grant.

Closeup of Johnson’s Creamery smokestack.

The grant was  awarded in connection with demolition of the Johnson’s Creamery historic smokestack from 140 feet to 60 feet.

The real estate developer has been ordered by the city of Bloomington to reduce the smokestack’s height due to its unsafe lean, as determined by a study done by Arsee Engineers.

In addition to the demolition work, Peerless described the project in its BUEA grant application as including the repair of the remaining exterior to replace missing mortar joints and to fill cracks with new, sound materials.

The amount Peerless requested in the application was $50,000. The estimated cost of the demolition is pegged at around $350,000. The $50,000 was five times the limit for any one application.

The BUEA’s documentation of facade grants says “The grant may be up to $10,000 per application.”

The $20,000 awarded by the BUEA is twice the amount of the application limit, but matches the limit for one organization in any calendar year.

A week earlier, Bloomington’s historic preservation commission (HPC) had been asked to award Peerless $500 under its consulting grant program.

HPC members put off a vote, asking for additional details.

According to Bloomington historic preservation program manager Gloria Colom, the $500 would be put towards the cost of the Arsee Engineers study, which she put at $20,000.

At their June 30 meeting, HPC members were skeptical that the purpose of the consulting grant program was consistent with reimbursement of the engineering study cost, as some members described it as “the cost of doing business.”

When briefed about the upcoming BUEA grant application, HPC member Duncan Campbell also expressed skepticism that the work on the smokestack was consistent with the purpose of BUEA facade grants—but that would be for BUEA to determine.

HPC member Allison Chopra accurately predicted that the BUEA would award the grant, when she said at the HPC meeting: “Well, they’re gonna get the BUEA money, because they never say no.”

The considerations given by BUEA members for saying yes to $20,000 included the fact that in the last few years, the BUEA had not spent all of its budget allocation for facade grants.

BUEA member Karin St. John said that in the previous three years the whole amount allocated for facade grants had never been spent. In fact, St. John said, over the last three years, a total of $70,000 in the BUEA budget for facade grants had been unspent. In 2019, St. John continued, the BUEA had $40,000 left in its facade grant budget, having used just $10,000 that year.

St. John added, “It’s not so much like we need to do this, or it’s not done. It’s how much do we want a partner to help get this done?”

On the question of how the work involves a “facade,” which is the focus of the BUEA grants, members appeared persuaded by a description of the work by Blaine Reames from Peerless, who attended the meeting using the Zoom video-conferencing interface.

“There’s also going to be extensive tuckpointing on the remaining 60 feet of the smokestack,” Reames said. A lot of the bricks on the remaining portion would need to be addressed somehow as well, he said.

About the relatively small amount of money ($500) for the HPC grant, Colom said, the goodwill it would buy is “a type of currency that goes a long way.”

The effort by Peerless to chase down whatever additional money might be available for the project comes in the context of a pending request in front of city council for the vacation of an alley that cuts east-west across the parcel.

The alley vacation would be needed in order for Peerless to move ahead with a development on the northern part of the parcel. The housing development is supposed to include 51 apartments right next to the B-Line Trail, off 7th Street.

Bloomington’s plan commission approved the site plan for the new development in October 2021. But that approval was contingent on getting a greenlight from the city council for the vacation of the east-west alley—because part of the proposed new building would sit in the right-of-way. The smokestack itself already stands in the alley.

In simple terms, Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s administration wants the council to demand, in exchange for an alley vacation, a $250,000 contribution from Peerless towards public art to commemorate the lost 80 feet of smokestack. To help cover that $250,000 cost, Peerless is looking to its title insurance company, because the company that did the title search appears to have missed the alley.

It’s in that context that Peerless is also looking to other sources for funding, like the BUEA and the HPC.

At a council meeting in early June, Bloomington corporation counsel Beth Cate pushed the council to make the alley vacation contingent on a roughly $250,000 payment to the city of Bloomington for a “world class” art installation at the site of the Johnson’s Creamery historic smokestack. The council postponed the decision on alley vacation, essentially at the request of Peerless.

At its June 15 meeting, the council agreed for a second time to postpone a decision on the alley vacation.

[Note: The reporter’s spouse, Mary Morgan, is a member of the BUEA. Morgan was absent from the Wednesday meeting.]