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‘Preserve the Elks’ founder sees reason for optimism

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BY MATTHEW OLSON

molson@kenoshanews.com

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There are some serious inquiries, including an upcoming visit from a developer, into the targeted-for-demolition former Elks Club building.

Kristine Roemer, who started the “Preserve the Elks” effort for the building at 5706 8th Ave., said a Wisconsin-based developer is scheduled to meet with the group next week about the building, which the developer has shown interest in for housing. A restaurant owner has also expressed interest in the site.

Mike Maki, a planner for the city of Kenosha, said the city has also had several calls from parties interested in seeing the property.

The city issued a raze order to demolish the Heritage House/former Elks Club in late December because the building needs repairs that would be expected to cost more than half of its estimated value — $251,000. The building has been vacant several years and had a fire in October.

The city’s Historic Preservation Committee voted 4-1 in February to defer for 120 days a decision on whether or not that raze order is appropriate, allowing time to gauge what interest there is in the building from potential developers. The city cannot take any action on demolishing the building until that period ends in late June. The committee can choose to continue the deferral or recommend preserving or tearing down the building at that time.

Roemer started a petition to preserve the former Elks Club before February’s meeting and organized the “Preserve the Elks” effort in the days after that meeting. The group — -preservetheelksbuilding.com — has worked to find parties that may be interested in using the building.

Roemer said she is confident that the road map for the building will be ready by the time the deferral is over.

“Our hope is at that point we can say, this is the plan and with cooperation or tax credits available this is how we can accomplish it,” Roemer said.

Roemer said she has wanted to see the building restored to its days as the Elks Club, with a large, well-appointed ballroom, space for several restaurants and spaces for hotel rooms on the top floor. Roemer said the group has been communicating with local businesses and agencies about what a facility of that kind could provide to the area, including adding from 90-150 jobs in the downtown area.

“I can see the building being used to support not-for-profit organizations and business networking,” Roemer said. “I can see having restaurants, each with a different theme, in there. That’s our vision. If a developer says it should all be residential housing, that would be disappointing. But the main point is to preserve the building. It could be a real destination for downtown.”

The estimates for the cost of making the group’s vision possible is estimated at about $5.8 million, Roemer said. The group that started as “Preserve the Elks” is in the process of forming a not-for-profit organization for rehabilitating area buildings, starting with the former Elks Club, that would be in a position to start raising those kinds of funds.

“The intention is to identify, preserve and develop historical, landmark buildings,” Roemer said.

Roemer said she also sees encouragement for this effort in the Lakota Group’s recently-released downtown report, the first phase of its development plan for the downtown.

One of the observations from the study is how there does not seem to be an organized effort to improve buildings and that the city’s entities need to work together to facilitate improvement. Roemer said that cooperation is what the Preserve the Elks group is seeking.

“I could see working with the area theater companies and have packages where people have dinner at (the former Elks Club) and go to theater and stay at the building and go to the museums the next day,” Roemer said. “We want to bring people down here.”

And as the city considers what to do with the downtown and as builders and contractors are seeking work, Roemer thinks the time is right for the Elks Club to be revitalized.

“There’s so much potential here,” Roemer said. “I really want this to be a catalyst for downtown and I think the more people know about it, the more certain I am that this is going to happen. It could be beneficial to so many different people.”

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