DECATUR — Creating new jobs, addressing residential blight and preventing future population declines were among the top issues city council members said should be priorities for Decatur's neighborhood revitalization initiative.
The long-term plan, which began in 2017, was the focus of a Monday special council meeting at MacArthur High School. City Manager Scot Wrighton has said the session was for officials to gain direction to "restart" the revitalization efforts, which have slowed in pace in recent months due to leadership changes.
No action was taken because the meeting was a study session, but Wrighton told council members and the public that the input city staff received Monday will be used to create a timeline for how the revitalization plan will be implemented and what areas and issues it will focus on initially.
"As many of us have said over the years, this is about more than just tearing down houses," said Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe. "It is about building up our city."
City leaders in September 2017 launched the neighborhood revitalization effort and recruited community members to brainstorm about how to deal with problems ranging from blighted properties to poverty.
For decades, population decline and job losses have led to abandoned homes and decay in older residential areas — which, in turn, spurred financial challenges for the city due to local tax revenue and other fees stagnating.
Wrighton and city staff provided the council with various statistics compiled from neighborhoods within Decatur's central residential areas, or "greater opportunity zone." This zone includes neighborhoods such as Old King's Orchard, the downtown area, Millikin Heights and Wabash Crossing.
Some of the data compiled by city staffers involved issues like blight, changes in the 10-year equalized assessed valuation and vacancy rates.
Among the top areas with blighted properties were Torrence Park near the city's east side and Neighborhood United, which has boundaries near Monroe and Eldorado streets and Fairview and Grand avenues. Mueller Park has the highest vacancy rate at 50 percent — which Wrighton said is because one person has purchased a significant amount of vacant parcels in the area — and Neighborhood United had the greatest EAV change at a loss of $14,307 per acre.
City staff provided the council with 36 strategies that could be applied to the entire city and to specific neighborhoods as part of the initiative. They include implementing a land bank to manage parcels for future purchase, starting a landlord registration program to keep track of property owners and creating job training centers within a targeted neighborhood.
Councilman Rodney Walker said he was fond of the job training center idea.
"We have to make sure everyone knows the difference between needs and wants," he said. "(The idea) is really focusing on the families ... and I think we'll see a direct impact on that. I think it'll help a lot of our problems."
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Councilwoman Lisa Gregory highlighted a few different potential strategies she thought could be helpful for local communities, including improving streetscape amenities within the urban core and the landlord registration.
When it comes to the plan as a whole, Councilman Pat McDaniel urged council and city staff to "be realistic on what we can actually do" due to financial restrictions. In response, Councilman David Horn said he disagreed.
"I would encourage the city to be both bold and aspirational," he said, citing Decatur's rapid population declines in recent years. "Perhaps, our big goal should be to grow the city to 80,000 residents by 2030 ... and then ask which combination of these 36 strategies is going to get the growth that we need."
McDaniel pointed out that communities are shrinking everywhere in Illinois, and that jobs and more industry need to be brought into the state. Councilman Bill Faber said the city must realistically find a way to manage decline and bring more jobs to the area.
Ultimately, city council members agreed to provide their thoughts on potential next steps for the plan to Wrighton after the meeting. Previous steps taken by the city council to move the initiative forward include approving the demolition of 46 unsafe or abandoned properties in the city, and agreeing to purchase 750 vacant Macon County trustee lots for $75 each.
Purchasing the lots qualified as a use for some of a $1 million donation that the private foundation of former Macon County Sheriff Howard Buffett gave the city for neighborhood revitalization in 2017.
In early May, the city announced that Buffett, a frequent financial supporter of various Decatur-area organizations, donated an additional $1 million toward the revitalization efforts. Wrighton on Friday said the city needs to figure out how the additional funds will be used within the initiative.
"We're going to have to have patience," Walker said of the efforts. "I know everybody's anxious to get the ball rolling, but it's not something that's going to happen overnight. And with a big project like this, we want to make sure we're doing the right things the right way."
The city council will meet again to discuss the revitalization plan during another study session scheduled for Monday, June 24.