Howard Conant, Jr. was our main speaker at the recent RNBA Annual Meeting. Howard helped to form the River North Business Association in 1981 and served as Chairman from 1999-2001. He remains vested in the community by being active on the boards of Archeworks, Writers Theatre and the Chicago Committee of Human Rights Watch and is Chairman of Urban Innovations, a leader of loft development and renovation with more than 35 years of experience in real estate, architecture and construction.
A FEW SCENES FROM THE EARLY DAYS OF RIVER NORTH
Good evening. My name is Howard Conant. I am Chairman of Urban Innovations, one of River North Assn’s founding members.
Before coming here tonight, I was discussing this talk with my family. My daughter suggested, “Don’t try to be too charming, witty or intellectual, Dad, just be yourself.”
Today, we pioneers of River North may seem shrewd or like we had some vision of what River North would become. Tonight, I stand before you as absolute proof that this is not the case.
In 1978 when we began, none of us had any idea about the potential of the yet unnamed neighborhood we now call River North. We were a few creative entrepreneurs who fell in love with River North’s century-old loft buildings, and hoped we could renovate a few and make some money doing it.
If we had been shrewd, we would have bought the entire zip-code, done nothing, waited for 20 or 30 years and cashed in. This strategy would have been no risk, no work and mind-boggling return.
So much for that myth about shrewd or prescient… Let’s move on.
I want to share a couple of scenes from the early days for those of you who are too young to know or, like me, too old to remember what River North used to be.
IN THE BEGINNING
It is 1982. A bunch of adventurous art gallery and business owners gathers in a not-so-renovated loft on Superior Street. This is River North Association’s second official meeting. I was there representing Loftworks Condominiums, Urban Innovations’ first real estate development.
Our tagline for Loftworks was, “Chicago’s first luxury loft condominium.” Our tagline was accurate, but it was not helping us sell any condominiums in 1982. Interest on our construction loan had floated from 7% to 22%, and mortgages, for the few who could qualify, were 15%. The interest rate on our construction loan was floating, but our condo project definitely was not.
River North was far from “upscale.” Where Lou Malnati’s is today, we had a biker bar called “The Mark.” We are not talking fit bicycle riders here. These were large, leather-clad, tatooed men riding Harley motorcycles. When we heard the roaring caravan approach, we brought our small animals, babies and selves inside. Gleaming Harley’s filled both sides of Wells Street from for the two-block stretch from Grand to Hubbard, and hundreds of menacing-looking men crowded into the not-so-large bar.
The Harley powwow did not exactly help River North’s emerging businesses. I know for a fact that it did not help Urban Innovations sell any of “Chicago’s first luxury loft condominiums.”
But all was not hardship, and we enjoyed some unique benefits when the “biker-boys” were not in town.
THE PURPOSE OF RIVER NORTH ASSN
River North Assn’s original purpose was twofold. Our first order of business was camaraderie. Together, we celebrated our crazy-hopeful River North adventure and were comforted by our shared lunacy. Every River North Assn meeting began with 30 minutes of drinking good wine from cheap plastic cups.
River North Assn’s primary business objective was to overcome the widely-held notion that visiting River North put one’s life in danger. Galleries, shops, restaurants, real estate developers- we all needed our customers to feel safe enough to visit us. Only then could we hope they might share the energy and excitement of our unlikely River North adventure.
BECOMING PRESIDENT OF RNA
Fast forward to 1999. The Harley boys have moved on, many River North streets are now one-way and have traffic lights, restaurants are flourishing, East Bank Club is now an established mecca.
River North Assn needed a new president because we finally read the By-Laws and discovered that reelecting Albert Friedman to a 6th consecutive term would blatantly violate our 2-term limit. I was elected president because I didn’t say, “no” emphatically enough.
Thankfully, River North’s negative stigma had given way to urban chic. Residential development was in full swing, the Merchandise Mart was a vibrant retail-office-showroom complex, and things looked good.
Susan Frasca agreed to become River North Assn’s vice-president and lead a branding/marketing campaign to foster connection between RNA members and promote River North as “Chicago’s favorite location to live, work and play.” We brought restaurants, galleries and adult beverages together for “River North Rendezvous,” an unsober grazing-sipping-walking progressive party featuring RNA members’ businesses.
On September 11th, our world changed. Before 911, we felt safe and secure. We believed that high-rise buildings were the safest places to work and live. After 911, the advantages of smaller, low-profile buildings became apparent.
For a moment, we set aside differences and came together. We were about community, about helping each other and about resilience. River North embraced this will real gusto.
River North was the first neighborhood to rebuild after the Chicago Fire in 1871, and it was from River North’s warehouses and factories that Chicago succeeded in rebuilding itself.
In the 1970’s and 80’s, River North led the renaissance of Chicago’s downtown. Transformation of River North from dangerous and forgotten to vibrant and desirable proved that Chicago could be a livable, 24-hour city. Corporate headquarters, diverse retail and entertainment businesses and, most importantly, residents reclaimed and re-inhabited our city.
River North has always been about optimism, creativity and resilience.
I have personally worked in River North for over 35 years. During that time, I made thousands of decisions. Some were on target, and others were not so on-target. Through it all, this diverse, optimistic, resilient community has been the tide lifting my boat giving Urban Innovations and me time and opportunity to adjust course and succeed.
So to you people of River North, I say, “thank you.” Here’s to you. May we continue to be the diverse, creative, optimistic, resilient and compassionate community we have always been.