DECATUR – Much has changed since Decatur City Council members and Decatur Park District commissioners last discussed their vision for Nelson Park lakefront development.
Some aspects of the plans they discussed in January 2011 have become reality. Others seem more distant. And some elements of the project remain just out of reach, dependent on state grant funding that has been suspended.
The leaders of both governing bodies met Wednesday at Scovill Golf Course Banquet Facility to take stock of the issue. While some questions remain, it was clear that both groups want to continue to work together on the lakefront.
“I really think this is a new beginning, kind of a Phase II,” Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe said. “We don't have clear direction tonight, but this is the beginning of dialogue.”
Consultant Greg Weykamp of Edgewater Resources walked the members through the initial plan and what they have accomplished. The review was especially important because the composition of both boards has changed in the last five years.
Tim Gleason began as city manager in March 2015. Council members Bill Faber, Chris Funk, Lisa Gregory and Pat McDaniel, as well as commissioners Chris Harrison and Stacey Young, have taken office since then.
Gleason said he was surprised to find that the city had spent nearly $1.3 million on the project over several years, even as it dealt with the aftermath of the recession. The city's contributions have been toward elements near the shoreline, such as the docks and promenade.
“It became very obvious to me that this is a priority of the elected officials. Their vision to develop that lakefront is a priority,” Gleason said.
Some of the achievements have included: Overlook Adventure Miniature Golf and its two adjacent restaurants, new docks and a promenade in front of the Beach House Restaurant, an accessible fishing pier and a walking path.
One central question has not been answered in five years: What is going to happen to boat docks on Lake Decatur?
City and park leaders have been clear in their message that the docks need to adhere to more consistent standards, but they have not defined what those standards are. The docks also need to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which could require expensive renovations.
Weykamp said the most cost-effective way to remedy the situation would be to build new docks that would be controlled by one operator, though boat clubs could continue to exist. The money for construction could come from bonds that would be repaid with revenue from boat slip rental.
“You're essentially looking at a situation where the marinas will fund themselves,” Weykamp told the boards. “And that sounds crazy, but time after time, I can show you marina after marina in public ownership where that works.”
He suggested that the district and city explore creation of a transition plan to determine the path forward. Members of both bodies indicated that they wanted to prioritize finding a solution.
Park district leaders also clarified that they are seeking approval to move ahead on some projects without the state grants for which they had qualified.
The district was promised state funding for projects including batting cages and a ropes course near the miniature golf facility. It also appears that an additional grant promised by former Gov. Pat Quinn, intended to help with construction of a large amphitheater, never received formal approval.
The grants were suspended after Gov. Bruce Rauner took office and budget battles descended on Springfield. Several commissioners have said they would favor moving ahead with at least some elements of the work.
But the district could be kept from receiving future grants if it proceeds without a grant it has been awarded. Commissioner Chris Riley said the district sent a letter to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources last week to ask for a waiver.
Two residents also questioned the park board's July 2011 vote to close Lake Shore Drive. Park leaders have said the scenic, winding road through Nelson Park attracted many drivers who exceeded the speed limit, and it also conflicted with the lakefront plans.
Bob Brilley II, vice president of the park board, attempted to put the matter to rest. He said he used to take the road often and does not like that it is closed, but he voted to do so for safety reasons and to allow the district to move forward.
“I can say this: The road will not open again – and I'm going to be honest with you, I'm an honest person – until this board changes,” Brilley said. “That's just the way it is.”