DECATUR – Leaders of the Grow Decatur initiative stressed the urgency of moving forward with Nelson Park lakefront development plans Wednesday, saying the work is vital for residents' quality of life.
Their audience, the Decatur Park District Board of Commissioners, has been stymied in its attempts to fulfill the lakefront vision. The district has been working for more than five years to revamp the shoreline but hit snags last year as multiple grant-funded projects were frozen because of the state budget impasse.
Nonetheless, Grow Decatur leaders Bruce Nims and Beth Nolan advocated for moving forward.
“We believe that Decatur has the ability and the interest to move forward on the things that are important to us even in a situation where the state funding does seem to dry up and blow away,” Nims said. “We would encourage continued activity, even though the state has given us some challenges.”
They cited recent survey results of roughly 500 Decatur residents, 43 percent of whom said they wanted more recreational opportunities that involve the lake.
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“Whatever we can do to help keep this momentum going, we stand ready to assist you and we encourage you to make sure there's a sense of urgency in prioritizing the lakefront development,” Nolan said.
Ryan McCrady, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Decatur and Macon County, said parks also play an important part in his ability to attract companies or convince existing ones to expand.
McCrady said site selectors base decisions on multiple criteria, including the site itself, tax environment and access to transportation. But CEOs also place a high value on quality of life, and parks are a part of that, he said.
“We want to be in support of what you're trying to do, because it makes a big impact on my ability to attract, retain and expand the employment base in this community,” McCrady said.
The district has been frozen by the holdup with state funding of several projects. Three grants awarded by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources were suspended after Gov. Bruce Rauner took office and Springfield erupted into budget battles.
Several commissioners have said they would favor moving ahead with at least some of the work, even if the state didn't pay for it.
But district officials said Wednesday that the state has told the district not to proceed on its own with the most recently awarded grant project, which included batting cages, a ropes course and a playground near Overlook Adventure Mini Golf.
The district did receive permission to go ahead on its own with components of two grants it was awarded earlier, which included a fitness trail, fitness equipment and native plantings in Nelson Park, as well as some work at Scovill Zoo.
It also appears that a fourth grant promised by former Gov. Pat Quinn, intended to help with construction of a large amphitheater, never received formal approval.
Park district Executive Director Bill Clevenger said the funding issues brought the lakefront momentum to a “screeching halt.”
He said the district now would look to move forward with elements of the first Nelson Park grant, and hope to hear more about the second grant soon.
He pointed out that Ted's Taters and CherryBerry, both adjacent to the mini golf facility, would have benefited from the addition of other features there and were hurt when those plans did not materialize.
“As this uncertainty lingers, it's hard for us to budget our capitals and look into the future because we always have this lag period or this uncertainty of whether the funding is going to be there or not be there,” he said.
As for the amphitheater, Clevenger said the district would continue to seek philanthropic and other sources of funding for its construction. The multimillion-dollar project is considered a centerpiece of the lakefront plans.
In other business, the district's board approved the use of a new type of asphalt on a group of parking lots, trails and cart paths.
The product is a collaboration between Archer Daniels Midland Co., Seneca Petroleum and Dunn Co., which was awarded the $265,000 project.
Dunn Co. representatives David Tyrolt and Matt Naber spoke about their experience with the asphalt, which incorporates agricultural oils. ADM resurfaced its own parking lots with the product last year, and Tyrolt said the product appears to be more flexible and scuff-resistant.
“At the same cost, the agency would get the benefit of improved performance and also a strengthened relationship with ADM,” he said.
Park district commissioners expressed support for the locally developed product. The resurfacing is expected to take place later this summer.