DECATUR - Many questions remain in the massive redevelopment of Decatur's lakefront, but one answer now seems clear: It is really going to happen.
After months of community meetings, proposals, plans and revisions, this summer marks the beginning of the longterm blueprint to revamp the shoreline of Lake Decatur. A disc golf course, walking trails and a dog park are among the elements set to roll out in the Nelson Park area over the next few months.
Later portions of the plan could involve outdoor and indoor water parks, reconfigured marinas, an amphitheater with seating for 3,000 people, and controversial residential developments in the Chandler Park area.
Much of the exact timeline and funding remains up in the air, but the Decatur Park District and city officials have pledged unprecedented cooperation in the coming years to move forward with the development. Because the city owns the lake and the park district owns the shoreline, the two soon will enter into an intergovernmental agreement to set terms of the partnership.
Multicolored stakes in Nelson Park outline the future home of a three-acre dog park, a walking trail that spans about a mile and a disc golf course.
Park district Executive Director Bill Clevenger said those elements will be under construction in the next few weeks and should be finished this summer. He cited accessibility as a common factor among the first parts of the plan to take shape.
"These are all elements that involve the whole local area of the community that can come and be involved in these," Clevenger said. "These are activities that are basically no-cost elements" to the participants.
The park district board authorized a $4 million bond in February to pay for some of the construction.
All of the officials involved agreed that a bold start is important to the plan's success.
"Momentum needs to be there to get people excited," said Mayor Mike McElroy. "We need to continue to let them know when the momentum is at a slow point. ... This is not something that's going to be worked on for 60 days and then it's done."
Planners estimate the project will take at least a decade or maybe even 20 years.
There's also a lot of uncertainty about when many elements will be developed, because officials cannot predict when they might receive donations and grants that are expected to fund much of the project. They have repeatedly said that taxes won't go up to pay for the development.
"In business - and that's how I look at this project, as a business plan - you have to have a plan, have the steps, have the goals," said park board Commissioner Cindy Deadrick-Wolfer. "But you have to have enough flexibility that when opportunities come, you can take advantage of them."
Other elements planned for later stages of the development include a walking trail that extends all the way around the Nelson Park basin; large amphitheatre; batting cages, miniature golf and an outdoor water park in the area adjacent to U.S. 36; waterfront village with shops and restaurants near the Beach House restaurant; and potentially a hotel and indoor water park development in the distant future.
The park district also is moving to close the 2,000-foot portion of Lake Shore Drive that branches off U.S. 36 and runs adjacent to the lake.
When it comes to improving the appearance of the lakefront, officials have pointed to enhancing the current system of boat docks that line the Nelson Park shoreline as a key element.
Uncertainty about these changes, and what they will cost, has prompted concern among boaters who use the current docks.
Officials concede the rate for renting space on the lake will likely increase as the lakefront plan calls for upgraded docks, with potable water and electricity, but no one knows how much it will change just yet.
City Manager Ryan McCrady said the city is waiting on the results of a marina feasibility study that suggests what the new docks should look like, what the business plan will be to attach those new docks, and how the city should move to that outcome.
Some boaters have expressed apprehension about the unknown, but almost certainly inevitable, price increase.
"You hear folks say, ‘You can't charge us what they charge at (Lakes) Shelbyville or Springfield or Clinton or Table Rock Lake,' or whatever," McCrady said. "And we're not saying that we're going to do that. What we are saying is that space is worth something. We'll have to be competitive, or we will lose boaters."
In the meantime, officials hope to offer a "sneak peek" of the new docks that may be in the water this summer in front of the Beach House restaurant, where they also want to improve the appearance of the promenade.
"If there's one area that we really feel like we're behind, that's putting in some new docks. We're pushing to do that," said Don Luy, park board president. "Our hope really was to have something in the water this year so people could see those and get a sense of what they're going to be like, how they're going to operate."
McCrady said the city should release more information about the new docks in the next few months.
Proposed condominiums in Chandler Park, across the street from St. Mary's Hospital, have drawn much of the criticism associated with the plan.
The park district would enter into a lease, probably spanning 50 years, with a private developer that would build the housing. However, Clevenger said it was important to note that the park district would still own the land, and an 8- to 10-foot walkway on the waterfront would remain public.
"We would be very, very prudent when we select a contractor/developer," Clevenger said. "You would want to be in a position to choose someone who had a good reputation for completing projects and had the financial background to be able to make something of that magnitude happen."
City and park district staffers already are working on a document to solicit developers.
Officials also reject a fear that the Decatur market isn't right for that type of development.
"I think the biggest misconception is that no one wants private housing in the park area," Deadrick-Wolfer said. "There are lots and lots of (people), especially ... younger professionals who would love to see that as a living area."