DECATUR — Nelson Park has undergone dramatic change in recent years as part of the Decatur Park District's lakefront development plans, and officials say more are expected for the sprawling 180 acres on the city's east side.
The district's renovation efforts have provided Nelson Park visitors with new amenities such as the Overlook Adventure Park, a disc golf course, upgrades to the Beach House restaurant, a 9/11 memorial and a 3-acre dog park.
While the long-awaited water park project has been delayed until 2019, Executive Director Bill Clevenger said there are still plenty of new things in the works that will keep people busy until then.
"We've put a plan in place, and we knew it was going to be a multi-year plan," he said. "The results have been good so far, and we'll keep making progress. It's exciting to see a re-purposing and rebirth of that area."
1. Mister Softee
Fans of Mister Softee ice cream will soon be able to purchase the sweet stuff from a permanent location at the Overlook Adventure Park.
During last Wednesday's Park District Board meeting, members finalized an agreement with mother-daughter team Terri Chance and Haley Huddleston to open the new store in the space formerly occupied by Ted's Taters, which closed in September.
Chance and Huddleston have operated the Mister Softee ice cream truck in Decatur since the summer of 2013. The new store is expected to open on April 1, and when it does, Huddleston said the truck's operations will not be affected.
"We'll still be open to do birthday parties, and all of our corporate events, and running day-to-day like we have in the past," she told the Herald & Review on Wednesday.
Kendall Peterson, the owner of Ted's Taters and CherryBerry, cited health reasons for closing both of the restaurants located near the multi-million dollar adventure park. Park district leaders have said they will seek a new occupant for the former CherryBerry location as well.
2. Outdoor fitness park
A variety of exercise equipment will be installed near the dog park and the disc golf course, and will be free for the public's use.
The fitness park was covered under a 2015 state grant, which was frozen until last fall. Plans to build the project were announced on March 15, and the park district board initially expected it to be finished by the end of this summer. However, the district needed to install sidewalks, a curb around the outside of the area and soft flooring before the project could be considered finished.
The fitness park will include more than 20 exercise features, including stationary bikes, chest and leg presses, balance stations, chin-up bars and plyometric boxes.
Clevenger said the park district would make an official announcement regarding when the fitness park will open in the coming weeks.
3. Nelson Park ampitheater
According to Clevenger, the $4.25 million ampitheater is projected to be ready for use by mid-summer 2018. He said the board is expecting to receive bids to build the facility by Friday, and construction will commence after the board approves them.
The amphitheater has been in the works since 2014, after former Gov. Pat Quinn visited Decatur and announced the district would receive funding for the multi-million outdoor venue.
But in January 2015, district officials said Quinn's office didn't approve necessary paperwork before Gov. Bruce Rauner took office that month. A few months later, Rauner suspended all state grants for park district projects.
The district's fortunes changed when The Howard G. Buffett Foundation announced in October 2016 that it would cover the $3.9 million cost of a new outdoor venue. The city and park district are sharing the estimated $358,600 of engineering and professional services.
Clevenger credited Buffett with helping to get what he considers to be the "lynchpin" of the Nelson Park renovation project back on track.
The facility will accommodate about 300 people in fixed seating and another 3,000 on the terraced lawn. It will be south of Pavilion No. 1, with Lake Decatur as a backdrop.
4. Repaved parking lot and roads
Clevenger said construction crews began working earlier this month to repave a parking lot near Pavilion No. 1. Road work also started along South Nelson Boulevard this year, which will be closed to drivers until the work is completed.
The parking lot should be finished in the next couple of weeks, Clevenger said, but bad weather could force delays.
"We're just so dependent on what the weather does on any given day," he said.
5. New pavilion
To complement the dog park, the district is constructing a new pavilion and bathrooms near the area with funds from an Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development grant that it received in 2015.
Clevenger said the pavilion is in the final stages of construction and, like the fitness park, should also be open within the next couple weeks.