ROCKTON - The former site of a Rockton landmark is going high-tech with plans for the relocation of a Internet-based shopping site.
Village trustees gave unanimous approval Wednesday for the redevelopment agreement for the former Wagon Wheel property with developer Tim Storm, founder of FatWallet.com. Storm plans to relocate the company headquarters from Machesney Park to Rockton and may eventually develop the rest of the property into a business park.
The Rockton headquarters will include a 30,000-square-foot, high-performance office building on a campus-like setting, Storm said. FatWallet.com currently employs 34 people, but Storm expects to add about 15 positions with new construction, and said the company could eventually employ about 100.
Storm expects to close on the land sale with former owner Peter Vole Monday. Per the agreement, Storm will pay $1.4 million for the 22-acre site at the corner of Route 75 and Wagon Wheel Road. The village agreed earlier this year to pay Vole for the land, minus what is owed Rockton and Winnebago County for liens on the property. Rockton should recoup about $460,000 for the sale for demolition and clean-up costs. The site of the former resort is in the village's Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District, which will allow Storm to receive about $400,000 back through TIF funds once the land begins to develop.
Storm, of Shirland, began FatWallet.com as a hobby in Monroe, Wis. He moved the company to Machesney Park in 2001. Storm works with about 500 different merchants, helping customers to compare prices and find good deals shopping online. During the holiday shopping season alone, Storm said the Web site has about 180,000 visitors a day.
“I started this as a hobby. It was a $100 investment that has paid off really well,” Storm said.
The primary focus for the development now is the needs of FatWallet.com, Storm said. The company headquarters will be located on about five acres on the back south-eastern corner property, leaving three-quarters of the land left to develop. Storm envisions additional retail and commercial uses for the site - a major reason village trustees have supported his proposal.
“We can really see this site as being an office-park type setting,” Storm said.
Storm has been working on the plans, currently in the design phase, for several months and is eager to move forward. Storm next expects to find a builder and said construction will hopefully begin in the spring.
“Come closing on Monday, hopefully we've got it done,” Storm said. “If I get my way, when the ground thaws, we go at it.”
The new development will mark the end of the Wagon Wheel saga. The resort became a Rockton landmark, famous for its celebrity visitors including Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan. In its prime, the resort included hotel rooms, restaurants, bars, swimming pools and tennis courts. Longtime owner Walt Williamson even constructed a landing strip for airplanes.
The property fell into ruin in the 1990s when a series of fires destroyed the resort. Vole purchased the property in 1998. After a fire in 1999 gutted most of the property, officials from the village and Winnebago County began a lengthy five-year court battle with Vole to have the remaining buildings demolished. A court ruling in 2004 sided with Rockton and the county and the demolition took place later in the year.
Storm remembers visiting the resort himself as a child. In a photo album, he even found of picture taken of him with Olympian Janet Lynn, a frequent visitor to the Wagon Wheel who used the ice rink for training.
“The history of the Wagon Wheel site is not lost on me,” Storm said. “The setting is just gorgeous.”
Storm is working with architects and engineers to design the innovative headquarters “conducive to creative thought,” he said. The property's quaint setting is perfect for the campus-like feel he's planning. Storm said he has also acquired a majority interest in the adjacent Red Barn Golf Course and plans to keep it as such, a perfect complement to the green space he loves for his company's new home.
Village President Dale Adams is pleased with Storm's vision for the property.
“What a great Christmas present for the village of Rockton,” Adams said. “I think it's great. It's a seed; the one building will be a starting point and it's a quality development.”
A handful of developers expressed interest in the land, but Adams said Storm's was most attractive because of its emphasis on commercial development.
“A business park - it's something we don't have in the area,” Adams said. “It's a quiet, excellent location.”