ROCKFORD — Now that plans for a culinary arts training program have moved from the former Imperial Palace on East State Street to the former location of Mary’s Market Cafe & Bakery in Edgebrook, it’s unclear what will happen next in the building that housed a Chinese restaurant for 27 years.
The city first announced plans for the Awaken 815 culinary program in May 2021. The free eight-week hospitality industry apprenticeship program for at-risk youth was to operate from the former palace site imperial and receive a $300,000 loan from the State E./Alpine Tax Increment Financing Redevelopment Fund with $100,000 in loan forgiveness.
According to Rockford Community and Economic Development Director Karl Franzen, a rental agreement between the foundation and the owners of the Imperial Palace has collapsed.
“They never finalized the rental agreement,” Franzen said. “I don’t know the intimate details of why it collapsed but in the end they didn’t have a legal contract and they walked away from this site so the council’s agreement n was no longer valid.”
The Imperial Palace closed in 2019. The vacant building at 3415 E. State St. is owned by Bill and Lai Nhi Mui Nguyen. The Register Star was unable to find a phone number associated with the Nguyens or the property.
The fair market value of the property is $415,320, according to the Winnebago County Treasurer’s Office.
“I haven’t even heard of anything going on there, which is unfortunate,” said Paula Olson, executive director of the Miracle Mile Business District, which includes the former restaurant. “It would certainly be nice to have something in there, but, from what I understand, the building needs a lot of maintenance. … That’s the next challenge. Nobody wants to assume neither does that.
Under the original agreement, the city would provide the Awaken Foundation with a $300,000 loan from the E. State/Alpine District TIF and set aside $50,000 after renovations were complete and set aside an additional $50,000 after 100 students have completed the program.
Frazen said the redevelopment agreement was site-specific, and since the program was moved, the agreement is “null and void”.
Awaken Foundation L3C, a U.S. Department of Labor-registered culinary arts and hospitality apprenticeship program founded in 2016, signed an agreement Aug. 31 to lease the former Mary’s Market space at 1659 N. Alpine Road .
The foundation’s founder, Jurea Crudup, said a cafe-style restaurant called Sonny’s Place will share the space with a culinary arts apprenticeship program starting in November.
It’s unclear if the organization is seeking city funding for the Edgebrook space.
“Those are questions I don’t want to answer at this point,” Crudup said.
As for the town of Rockford?
“We’re not talking about active negotiations, whether there are any or not,” Franzen said. “I can tell you that the city council has not approved any funding, but we would not comment on the discussions.”
Ken DeCoster covers business news and features. Reach him at 815-987-1391, [email protected] or @DeCosterKen.