DECATUR — As summer comes to a close, the Decatur Park District plans to keep the momentum behind several major construction projects going strong into the fall and winter seasons.
Work is well underway at the amphitheater in Nelson Park, the aquatics facility and water park near Overlook Adventure Park and the Z.O.& O Express train at Scovill Zoo, and park district leaders hope to have all three open to the public within the next year.
"The way I would put it is that we've got a number of balls in the air, and we'll be keeping all of the balls in the air moving forward," said Bill Clevenger, the park district's executive director. "I think we're in a good position."
Nelson Park amphitheater
On Oct. 3, two years will have passed since Macon County Sheriff Howard Buffett joined city and park district leaders to announce that his foundation would foot the bill for a new amphitheater in Nelson Park near the shoreline.
Since then, contractor Christy-Foltz Inc. has broken ground at the eastside park and the venue has steadily started to take shape at its future home.
Clevenger said significant progress has been made on the amphitheater's concrete bowl, and anyone who takes a drive around the site can get a sense of how the project will take shape. Grading for the venue's lawn area also has begun, he said, and one of its viewing decks has been completed.
The amphitheater is a key aspect of the park district's lakefront revitalization, a 20-year plan to transform the Nelson Park area into a recreational hub for the city. The project has been in the works since 2014, after former Gov. Pat Quinn visited Decatur and announced the park district would receive state funding for the multi-million dollar outdoor venue.
That changed in January 2015 when district officials said Quinn's office didn't approve necessary paperwork before Gov. Bruce Rauner took office later that month. Rauner suspended all state grants for park district projects a few months later.
The project found new life when Buffett announced that his private foundation would cover the $3.9 million base cost of building the venue. The city and park district were to share the $358,000 cost of engineering and professional services. Buffett, a philanthropist who was named Macon County sheriff in September 2017, has been a frequent supporter of various Decatur-area projects and agencies in recent years.
Through its capital projects budget, the park district has funded about $1.2 million of additional work at the venue site.
When finished, the amphitheater will include perimeter security fencing, synthetic turf and a rear-stage wall that opens and closes, allowing boaters an opportunity to see performances on the stage.
Clevenger said the district is seeking to hire a full-time manager for the amphitheater who will be responsible for overseeing the venue and booking performers. The district's cultural arts program is also expected to perform at the venue on occasion.
"Some of its activities will move and take advantage of this new venue," Clevenger said. "I'm certain the kids will thoroughly enjoy performing there."
Scovill Zoo train
Another park district project that has picked up steam is the expansion of Scovill Zoo's Z.O.& O Express train.
"They're using the heavy equipment to grade the ground that the train track will be laid on," Clevenger said. The construction work is not expected to keep riders from enjoying its current one-mile trip around the zoo, he said.
The track will be extended to connect the zoo with the Children's Museum of Illinois, a route that includes construction of a steel bridge to pass over a ravine. Passengers will have a clear view of Lake Decatur as well as pieces in the Scovill Sculpture Park, another Buffett-funded project that opened in 2016.
The district's board of commissioners approved O'Shea Builders' $2.2 million bid to expand the track on June 20. The Buffett Foundation largely funded the train expansion as well. Buffett announced the $2 million gift on the same day of the amphitheater funding announcement.
"With the extension, they're going to get a nice, long ride and a nice lake view and it'll be kind of fun to incorporate the children's museum and some of the sculptures in between," said Ken Frye, the zoo's director. "I think it's going to be a positive experience for everybody who gets to ride the extended ride."
Frye said the extension will double the train's length and ride time. Whenever large crowds make it hard for the train to give every visitor in line a chance to go through the new route, he said the zoo will have the option to switch between taking the train on the extended track or its original one-mile track.
"I think people really enjoy the train ride as part of the zoo experience and just seeing the animals from a different look," Frye said.
Overlook Adventure water park
Clevenger said construction crews have started digging one of the pools to be featured at the new Nelson Park aquatics facility and water park, near the Overlook Adventure miniature golf park.
Another key component of the district's lakefront plan, the facility was initially supposed to be finished by this summer. After bids from five contractors came in too high, district leaders in October voted to break the project into three phases to save money, and pushed the anticipated completion date to Memorial Day 2019.
When finished, the $9.2 million facility will feature a lap pool, leisure pool, a sprayground and several types of water slides.
The new aquatics facility will replace the Fairview Family Aquatics Center on the west side, which will close permanently after Labor Day on Monday. Clevenger said that facility has been in operation for 50 years and has reached the end of its useful life.
When asked if he thought West End residents would be willing to make the trip to the Overlook water park, Clevenger said he was hopeful.
"People who frequented the pool at Nelson migrated to Fairview when it closed," he said. "This facility is a facility that's going to draw people from significant distances to it."
Clevenger also said the Fairview pool's lengthy history in Decatur is proof of the park district's record of taking care of its facilities, and expects the same of the new water park and other new amenities in the works.
The park district anticipates the aquatics facility to open on Memorial Day 2019, and that the amphitheater and train expansion will be ready by next spring.
This year, inclement weather created problems for many park district activities and projects. While it's impossible to control the weather, Clevenger said, all of the contractors hired to build the projects have factored in time for bad weather.
"Sometimes, you just have to play the hand you're dealt," Clevenger said. "More than likely, we're going to have a good fall construction season. September and October are good months for construction, so we've got an optimistic outlook."
Frye said if the train expansion doesn't meet the spring completion date, he wouldn't be too disappointed.
"I want it, when it's done, to be a safe, put-together-well ride," he said. "And if they need to take a little extra time, I'm happy for them to take a little extra time to make sure it's a nice, safe ride for the people at the zoo."
Kaye Henry of Decatur said she'd be willing to bring her grandchildren, Christian and Liam Sheppard, to check out some of the district's new additions when they're finished.
As she watched 12-year-old Christian and 9-year-old Liam play at Project Playground near the zoo entrance, Henry said her grandchildren already get a kick out of visiting the ropes course and miniature golf courses at Overlook.
"Of course, everyone will be wanting to go to the water park when it's done," she said with a chuckle. "It'll be an all-day event there."