HARVARD – McHenry County’s largest commercial building has remained stubbornly vacant for more than a decade.
The 1.5-million-square-foot former Motorola campus at 2001 N. Division St. has been empty since the cellphone company shuttered operations at the site in 2003.
A marketing brochure for the property notes the replacement cost of the facility is more than $250 million “and the facility is available immediately at well below this cost.” Marketing materials don’t list an asking price for the campus. Optima International bought the property in 2008 for $16.75 million, according to Chemung Township records.
Efforts to fill the property – with everything from a major company to a water park and a prison – haven’t been successful and come as some are forecasting the demise of sprawling corporate campuses in isolated suburbs.
But local officials continue to market the Harvard campus and say they have seen renewed interest.
Members of Harvard’s Economic Development Corp. met in early June with an investor interested in the city’s long-vacant former Motorola property.
“We have a Chinese investor who has expressed a desire at least to see it and is leaving on a trip to China promoting Chinese persons investing in the U.S.,” said Charles Eldredge, executive director of the Harvard Economic Development Corp.
Eldredge declined to name the woman who toured the facility.
“She is affiliated with an organization that brings foreign direct investment into the United States through the EB5 program,” Eldredge said. “This person is a packager of EB5 investors.”
In general terms, the EB5-visa program – outlined in the Immigration Act of 1990 – provides a path to legal residency in the United States by way of financial investment. An individual can obtain a green card if he or she invests at least $500,000 and creates or preserves jobs.
Typically, EB5-visa seeking investors make up a small percentage of a total investment into an industrial or commercial enterprise.
“Whether [the investor] will get any interest in this building or not remains to be seen,” Eldredge said.
His nonchalance is telling.
Eldredge and others involved in trying to lease or sell the gargantuan property have had their hopes raised and dashed countless times over the past 10 years.
In 2005, it was Joe Buralli and his dream to use parts of the 325-acre site for an indoor water park.
In 2010, trucking company Navistar considered relocating its center of operations there.
Just last summer, current owner Optima International, the McHenry County Economic Development Corp. and the Harvard EDC were in talks with the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs Regional Office about using the space for a regional headquarters, Eldredge said.
“We were told at that time that it would be an ideal site for it, but they weren’t adding at that point,” he said.
The property also has been marketed as a possible federal detention facility, a college, a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility and even a homeland security office.
“Frankly, having it be economically productive in some fashion is what is really important,” Eldredge said.
“Obviously, particularly the school district, [which] derives so much of its revenue from property taxes, would love to see it worth $200 million again, but having it used, having thousands of employees in it, would just be an enormous boon to the city,” he said.
Further, while the city of Harvard and groups like the Harvard and McHenry County EDCs have major interest in what happens to the vacant property, they have little official say in what happens next. Current owner Optima International does not have to share its efforts or intentions with the city.
Optima International is the U.S. branch of a private, global company based in the Ukraine. Neither representatives from Optima International nor the company’s real estate broker Mark Kolar of Jones Lang LaSalle could be reached for comment on this story.
The Harvard EDC does, however, work in concert with Kolar, Eldredge said.
Eldredge believes the former cellphone distribution center would make a perfect campus for the veterans administration or a college, but because of lingering effects of the recession, he doubts these will come to town.
“Foreign investors have been the likely next owners/tenants,” he said.
Stakeholders haven’t given up on finding a tenant for the campus, said Pam Cumpata, president of the McHenry County Economic Development Corp. She said marketing material for the property has been translated into Mandarin and taken by the U.S. Department of Commerce on two trade missions to China.
“There’s a solid group of people and organizations who believe that we have a great asset here and need to get it filled with an operating business,” Cumpata said.
Whenever a company or organization is finally ready to move into the property, the site is ready.
“They have had a staff that works at the building the whole time it has been empty who maintain it and, really, it is just like Motorola moved out yesterday,” Eldredge said.
A small cleaning staff is employed year-round to keep the campus’ offices, fitness center, two child care centers, 500-seat auditorium, and 1,100-seat cafeteria all move-in ready.
While Eldredge and the EDC will continue to pursue any lead that comes their way, the group is most optimistic about how they believe Harvard’s application to create a new enterprise zone will affect the marketability of the old Motorola property.
An enterprise zone is a geographic area designated by the government, which is entitled to state and or federal financial aid, which can include tax breaks, special financing and other incentives designed to encourage business.
The laws for enterprise zones in Illinois were recently revamped and the city of Harvard, with the old Motorola property in mind, plans to apply under the new law.
“It is the hope that the city will form a partnership with the county and with other entities in the course of this application. We are just in the very beginning stages now,” Eldredge said.
“One of the criteria for obtaining an enterprise zone designation is to have a relatively large amount of vacant industrial commercial space and having a project that represents a loss of jobs related to the labor market, the Motorola building by itself qualifies,” he continued.
“[The tax breaks] should be a very strong reason to come use this building,” he added.
By the numbers:
• 1,547,917: the number of square feet that make up the four buildings on the campus
• 1,100: the number of seats in the property’s largest cafeteria
• $30 million: the financial boon realized by the City of Harvard in 1996 – paid by the state to support infrastructure and improvements to support growth anticipated as a result of the then-new Motorola plant.
• 0: the number of other buildings in McHenry County that are even half the size of the former Motorola property
• $181,603: funds from the site’s property tax, captured by Harvard Community Unit School District 50 in the 2013 levy
• $16.75 million: the amount Optima International paid for the property in August 2008, according to township records
• $250 million: the replacement cost of the campus according to marketing materials
• UNDISCLOSED: the asking price for the property
About the property: The Midwest Corporate Campus has 1.5-million-square-feet through four connected buildings. Amenities include a fitness center with a dance room, two child care centers, nine elevators, a keyless security system, a 500-seat auditorium, a 1,100-person capacity cafeteria, miles of biking and running trails and two heliports (one rooftop, one ground level). The campus has 6,000 parking spaces and 28 underground executive parking spaces.
The two-story, 619,590-square-foot manufacturing building was designed for high-tech manufacturing. The one-story, 355,315-square-foot distribution building has more than 100,000-square-feet of office space and 28 shipping and receiving docks. The office building, which has 407,347-square-feet over four floors, contains executive suites and conference rooms among other features. The two-story, 165,605-square-foot central services building has the kitchen, cafeteria, training center and auditorium. Source: Jones Lang LaSalle marketing materials.