DECATUR — City leaders on Monday could take several major steps toward neighborhood revitalization goals, including demolition of seven abandoned structures and the potential to join a regional land bank that would help manage vacant and dilapidated properties.
The Decatur City Council is set to vote on a measure that would have it join the Vermilion County Land Bank, recently renamed to Central Illinois Land Bank. City leaders have discussed for several years the idea of a land bank as a potential avenue to help improve Decatur’s core neighborhoods, and it was included earlier this year on a list of 36 strategies that could be applied to the goal.
"We've floated the idea for the past two or three years, but we haven't taken concrete action until now," Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe said. "We are looking for the most efficient way to manage all of these properties and joining a regional land bank could give access to many resources."
Central Illinois Regional Land Bank currently serves over 15 municipalities throughout Vermilion and Champaign counties. Executive Director Pat O'Shaughnessy said the land bank helps with everything from lawn maintenance to the demolition of properties. Decatur has nearly 200 properties on its demolition list, as the Herald & Review reported last month.
"Our main goal is to get properties out of a dilapidated state and get them back on the tax roll," O'Shaughnessy said. "We focus on blight reduction and redevelopment rather than tearing down, but we also help with demolitions."
There are two other regional land banks in Illinois: Cook County Land Bank Authority in Chicago and the South Suburban Land Bank and Development Authority in Tinley Park.
Illinois regional land banks are mostly funded by the Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA). O'Shaughnessy said the Central Illinois Regional Land Bank went through the grant process last year and in the first round, received $325,000 for Vermilion County and $150,000 for Champaign County. The organization is planning to apply for the second round of grants this month, capped at $250,000. Funds awarded to the land bank would not be designated to a specific county and all funds would pool together to be allocated by county on a case-by-case basis. Currently, there is no cost to join but that could change in the future, O'Shaughnessy said.
City Manager Scot Wrighton said being part of a land bank could allow Decatur to access certain resources.
“We will be closing on 700 Macon County trustee lots soon and this entity (central Illinois regional land bank) can help do everything the city already does,” he said. “Demolitions, maintenance, everything — except the condemnation of properties, which they wouldn’t do anyway.”
O'Shaughnessy said it can be beneficial to join a regional land bank, rather than create a new one, because regional land banks are more likely to win grant funding from the state housing development authority.
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Nicki Fioretti, director of community affairs for IHDA, said while grants are awarded on a case-by-case basis, regional land banks often receive funding over municipality land banks because multiple entities can benefit from the resources. "Regional land banks might have more experience and knowledge to offer the many municipalities they support," Fioretti said.
She said first-round awardees had the opportunity to participate in trainings and webinars to access a toolkit of information that could help with the services provided by land banks. Central Illinois Regional Land Bank representatives attended a training in Peoria last year led by representatives from the Cuyahoga Land Bank in Ohio, which is the model for national land bank standards, Fioretti said.
"We have limited resources, and we are always trying to figure out how we can use them the most efficiently," Fioretti said. "We are planting seeds that will yield benefits in communities for years to come."
O'Shaughnessy said each community has a seat on the land bank's executive board. Municipalities with over 20,000 people have two seats. The organization currently has 24 board members and recently welcomed the cities of Rantoul and St. Joseph. If the city moves forward with joining, Decatur will be allowed two seats on the board. O'Shaughnessy said he is expecting that cities in surrounding communities will likely join as well.
The city will also discuss at Monday's meeting the demolitions of seven properties. According to the council packet, the properties were the first of approximately 50 properties to be demolished, having cleared a legal and environmental review.
The combined group discount provided a savings of $1,830 over individual bids, according to city documents. Clancy Coleman Excavating is offering the lowest bid for the work at $60,000. Authorizations for additional demolitions are scheduled for council action in October.
City leaders for years have struggled with the issue of how to deal with abandoned properties, some of which are owned by out-of-state residents who can be difficult to track down. A lack of funding caused progress to slow in some years, and properties on the city’s demolition list have been added as far back as 2012.
Officials have said that newly available funding, including from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, has allowed more substantial progress this year. Authorizations for additional demolitions are scheduled for council action in October.
"We are going to do great things moving forward," Moore Wolfe said.