JOLIET – Joliet Township Supervisor Dan Vera hopes to get the go-ahead next week to take a closer look at buildings and operations at Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park before the township makes a decision on whether to take it over.
Vera said he was invited to meet with the Joliet City Council on Monday during a closed session to discuss township plans for the park.
He said he is looking for authorization to bring contractors onto the property so the township board can make a decision at its Oct. 20 meeting whether to pursue at least partial park ownership.
“That is the next step – to go over there and look at the condition of both buildings,” Vera said. “We want to shadow how it operates.”
Township interest in the park surfaced publicly in August and has worried some residents in the neighborhood. They question what could happen to the park, which, in addition to having a theater and band shell, contains plaques commemorating the site’s role in the 19th century origins of Joliet.
Vera said he has been talking with city officials off and on for five years since Joliet, which owns the park, began to cut funding. He said he rejuvenated the discussions in March.
He said the township, which now sponsors Concerts on the Hill in the park for the month of August, would keep the park as is while bringing back major festivals. Those outdoor events disappeared when the city cut funding. The township also could take over responsibility for building repairs.
In recent weeks, Vera has been meeting individually with council members to discuss his plans.
One of those council members, Michael Turk, said he still needs to know more about the township plan before deciding whether he would support it.
Turk, the council liaison to Bicentennial Park, said he needs to see “a clear plan” and added the city, too, could begin funding events at the park.
“With the right planning, we could bring some of these festivities back,” he said.
Vera is asking the city to contribute $100,000 a year for 10 years even if the township takes control of the park.
He wants a partnership with the city, but the township would need ownership interest in the park, he said.
View from the office
The park, located in the bygone Bluff Street business district, was built as Joliet’s contribution to the nation’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976. It lies along the west side of the Des Plaines River across from downtown. Across the river are the Joliet Township government building and Joliet City Hall.
“I’m looking at the park as we speak,” Vera said during a telephone interview from his office Wednesday.
Vera said his daily view of the park and his own experience bringing family to past events were two motivating factors in his interest in township control of the facility.
There has been some suspicion, however, about a change in park ownership.
“We have about 300 signatures on our petition saying we want to keep Bicentennial Park in city possession,” said Candace Johnson, co-president of the St. John’s Neighborhood Association. The park is in the St. John’s Neighborhood.
Johnson said the petition was started after Vera came to an association meeting in August and discussed his plans for the park. Johnson was not convinced, and she said others were not either.
“We have not heard a real legitimate reason on why they want the park,” she said.
She said the township could bring back events by sponsoring them. Other organizations hold events at Bicentennial Park and rent out the facility. The Spanish Community Center in August held its Family Fiesta, a three-day fundraiser, at the park.
In its boom years, Joliet provided money for Waterway Daze, a July 3 fireworks show, a Father’s Day car show and Pumpkinfest. But the city cut funding needed for those events, and also shifted park staff to additional duties as a budget measure.
Another past proposal
Vera is not the first person to propose taking over Bicentennial Park.
Jeff Barnes, secretary of a Bicentennial Park board that approves programs and does fundraising, said management at Rialto Square Theatre made a similar proposal when the city cut park funding.
But even with the big outdoor festivals gone, Bicentennial Park still hosts about 400 events a year, including plays at the theater, concerts and meetings, Barnes said.
Barnes said Joliet Township might eventually reach the same conclusion Rialto management did – that the park would be too much to manage. But Barnes said he does not doubt that Vera’s goal is to improve the park.
“I believe he believes he can take the park and make it better,” Barnes said. “I believe he’s sincere.”