JOLIET – The University of St. Francis’ move into the former Mode theater building downtown falls in line with the school’s ongoing commitment to Joliet’s revitalization, USF President Arvid Johnson said.
USF several years ago located its visual arts program in the office section of the Rialto Square Theatre downtown.
“With both those buildings, we now have students downtown every week with classes. There’s more vibrancy and more foot traffic downtown. Anytime you have young people in an area, it provides a good vibe,” Johnson said. “It encourages other people to be there.
“Our hope is that as students spend more time down there, it will make more and more of an impact on the downtown area.”
The three-story, 18,000- square-foot Mode building at 16-18 W. Van Buren St. was renovated for $2.7 million and is called St. Bonaventure Hall. It houses USF programs in recreation, sports and tourism management, and criminal justice. USF also has started a business incubator in the building.
Inside, there are five classrooms, space for the business incubator program, a courtroom for mock trial activities, a study and leisure area, a computer lab and faculty offices.
Classes at the Mode building began Aug. 18.
The Mode front facade was restored to the way it looked when the building was built in 1908. The former movie theater was converted into office space in the 1980s, but the building fell into disrepair and went into foreclosure.
That would be the case today but for BMO Harris Bank’s donation of the building to the university – and the city’s encouragement, Johnson said.
Joliet Mayor Tom Giarrante said the former city manager had a hand in the deal between BMO Harris Bank and USF to encourage use of the former theater.
“They did a beautiful job. I’ve been living here all my life and I remember the old theater,” Giarrante said. “It’s been sitting there empty for some time, so the changes they made, the classrooms, the mock courthouse, it’s a great improvement.”
About 400 students attend classes there on any given day of the week, while another 200 attend classes at the Rialto Theatre, according to USF’s enrollment office.
Johnson said the university already is getting requests to have more classes there throughout the week, but filling those time slots could pose a challenge with the lack of off-street parking downtown.
Students are being shuttled by bus from USF’s main campus to limit the influx in parking, and scheduling those shuttles can be difficult, he said.
“Right now, because we have parking [at USF], students will park there and take the shuttle. After class, they may want to just come back here to get their car, versus if there was off-street parking downtown,” Johnson said. “If there were more parking downtown, I really believe students would be able to spend more time, and money, there.”
Downtown parking problems are well-documented. There’s just 3,000 spaces, and under half of those are available to the public, according to analysis done earlier this year by the Michigan-based consultants Rich & Associates. The firm was hired by Joliet earlier this year to help staff tackle the parking problems, including the city’s aged parking garages and antiquated metered parking system.
USF’s move to Van Buren Street ties into the city’s long-term plan for revitalizing the downtown area, Giarrante said.
“It’s going to go a long way,” he said.
A consultant recently advised the city to target young adults to maximize long-term redevelopment efforts downtown. The firm said the downtown area has “strong potential” for a low-cost rental market, noting the presence of both USF and Joliet Junior College.
Johnson said his commitment to USF’s downtown presence is just as strong as his predecessor, Michael Vinciguerra, who worked with the city in getting USF’s visual arts department into the Rialto.
“He said, ‘We would be Joliet’s university. We would be a modern urban university,” Johnson said. “He said we would be committed to the downtown revitalization.”