DECATUR — When the Decatur Park District and Decatur City Council agreed to begin the massive redevelopment in Nelson Park two years ago, it was already the end of a long process.
Consultant Greg Weykamp was chosen in 2009 to head up the long-term project, now known as Lakeshore Landing. A series of community meetings, concepts, proposals and designs followed until January 2011, when the governments decided jointly to move forward.
But Decatur leaders had spoken of the lakefront’s development potential for decades, and so citizens waited to see if this vision would become tangible.
Two years and several million dollars later, officials have carved out some improvements in the rolling 180 acres on the city’s east side. While many pieces of the plan await funding, Nelson Park has still seen progress.
“It’s funny,” Weykamp said. “It kind of looks like maybe there’s not a lot happening, but at the same time, you look around and there’s a ton of balls in the air; there’s a ton happening. It’s really, really exciting.”
The first components of the plan to be built in 2011 were a three-acre dog park, a mile-long walking trail and a disc golf course, as well as a parking lot and small shade structure to accommodate those amenities.
The next portion of the project was a set of new docks and promenade area in front of the Beach House restaurant. The construction, expected to begin in 2011, was delayed by the permitting process from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and ultimately took place in 2012.
The park district and city agreed to split the $1.4 million cost of the project.
This is the first boating season that the new marina was open to boaters, who filled up all the available spaces and a waiting list. The new docks also provide an example of the standards that both park district and city officials hope will eventually define all the docks in the Nelson Park area.
Officials have said that improvements to the docks, which would include electricity and potable water, would mean an increase in rates for boaters. Many expressed apprehension about paying more for a product they could not see, and so the overarching discussions about fee increases and dock management were delayed until this summer.
“I think later this summer would be a good time to have (the dock conversation), so we have a reference point,” City Manager Ryan McCrady said. “Last time that we talked about it, we were saying, ‘They’re going to look like this.’ You might recall everybody said, ‘I don’t believe you. Show me what they’re going to look like.’ ”
The coming months will also see the construction of a key element of the project in the new 36-hole miniature golf course near U.S. 36. The course is the first component of the Overlook Adventure Park, which is proposed to include batting cages, indoor and outdoor aquatic centers and even a climbing wall.
The park district awarded the $1.2 million contract to design and build the course to Indiana-based Weber Group, which proposed a theme based on Scovill Zoo animals. It also awarded a $574,000 contract to Otto Baum Inc. to build a parking lot for the facility and demolish the former clubhouse.
The new clubhouse is also proposed to include an arcade and a CherryBerry frozen yogurt restaurant.
Some financial help for the lakefront improvements is coming from the state, which recently awarded the district a $400,000 grant. The district will provide an additional $500,000 for improvements to its two Depression-era pavilions, new exercise stations near the existing fitness trail, a new mountain biking trail and restoration of about 10 acres of land with native prairie plants.
But the park district and city cannot pay for all of the lakefront improvements they have proposed.
Planners have always been clear that private money, including donations and sponsorships, would be needed for some elements of the project, such as a large amphitheater near the closed portion of Lake Shore Drive.
Park district Executive Director Bill Clevenger said it is necessary to match projects that interest specific donors or developers. When an area begins to attract more businesses and activity, it creates “buzz” that begets more attention, he said.
“I think, you know, right now, everybody wants to see what’s going to happen. Is this going to be real? Is it really going to emerge? And it is emerging,” he said.
Weykamp said donors and sponsors would likely come forward as they saw the park district and city working together to build high-quality, durable amenities in the park.
“I’d love to see more soon and more sooner, but I also recognize that people want to see the progress and know that, if you’re going to make that investment, it’s going to be really valued and it’s going to be part of a bigger and broader vision,” he said. “I think we’re showing it, and I think we’ll see more.”
Perhaps the most controversial element of Lakeshore Landing is the proposal for residential development in the Chandler Park area.
The plan for those condominium-style residences, dubbed “Chandler Cove,” is unchanged, officials said, and they will soon seek developers who might lease the land from the park district.
McCrady said it has always been clear that the lakefront development is a long-term project.
“It’s met my expectations. Now, of course, there’s always people who feel like it should be going faster or slower, I understand that,” he said. “We’re trying to do it in a manner where it’s financially sustainable, and we give the different phases opportunities to start creating interest and then also revenue and other things and move them forward.”
Of course, it’s always nice for things to go faster, Clevenger said.
“But we do things based on our ability to complete the projects from a manpower perspective and also from a financial perspective, and we want to keep that all in perspective as we move along as well,” he said. “As we do these things, we always want to keep in mind, we want to do them well.”