DECATUR – A new state grant for the Decatur Park District means progress on the Nelson Park lakefront development, but also a flurry of construction activity in the park this year.
Gov. Pat Quinn announced Saturday that the district will be among those receiving Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development grants. The $400,000 is to be matched by the park district, and is expected to help pay for batting cages, a ropes course and a large playground near the Overlook Adventure Miniature Golf course, as well as restrooms, pavilion and signs near the dog park.
“It was great news. I can't be more excited about this one,” said Bill Clevenger, executive director of the park district.
Clevenger said the climbing course would be a unique feature for the city. Both it and the batting cages would require some supervision and come with an admission fee, but access to the playground would be free.
He said the playground will be large, similar in scope to Project Playground in front of Scovill Zoo. All three elements will be located to the east and southeast of the clubhouse building.
The restrooms and pavilion near the dog park will complement another feature that has yet to be added. Using money from a previous grant, the district has purchased a variety of outdoor fitness equipment that is also slated for that area.
“All of a sudden we have a whole new area there now, with the pavilion, the restrooms, the dog park, the fitness court, and then the trail is a one-mile trail,” Clevenger said. “For people who are interested in designing their own fitness activities throughout the spring, summer and fall, this is going to be a wonderful area to do that.”
Clevenger said he anticipated construction could begin by late spring or early summer, with the batting cages likely to be completed first.
“Hopefully, we'll be able to get that started as soon as the winter breaks,” he said. “I couldn't tell you exactly, but hopefully we'll get some use from at least the batting cages this summer.”
With the new additions, Nelson Park will hum with the sound of construction crews in five areas this summer.
In addition to work near the miniature golf course and dog park, the district will oversee renovations to the Beach House restaurant; construction on a road leading to Pavilion No. 2; and work on a large amphitheater near the rock garden. The district received a $2 million state grant and $1.5 million donation from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation in September for the amphitheater, a key element of the lakefront development.
Clevenger said the district will use contractors to handle the projects, so its own staff resources should not be stretched too thin.
“Nelson Park next summer is going to be a hub for construction activity and improvements,” he said. “By the end of next summer and fall, you're going to see just a lot of change in that park and the look of the park and the kinds of things that we're able to do in the park.”
Jack Kenny, president of the park district board, acknowledged that the construction might cause some inconvenience for park users as the district makes improvements.
“I think the public in general will accept that and be glad that it's taking place,” he said. “Who can't be excited about the amphitheater? And who can't be excited the other things that are going on in Nelson Park? I feel honored that I get to be a part of that, and the other park district commissioners get to be a part of that.”
Clevenger credited the park district's staff with its success in obtaining state money for the projects.
“They just do a great job. They're creative, and they just keep everything moving forward,” he said.
Kenny said it also helps that the district is able to point toward its long-term plan for the lakefront area, all the elements of which are expected to take more than a decade to complete. The park board and Decatur City Council agreed in 2011 to work together to transform the lakefront.
“If anybody's looking at this, they can see this is a big picture, and this is just a step or two in that big picture,” he said. “I think the planning that went on some time back is very helpful. Little did we realize at the time that the opportunities might be coming this soon.”