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Okon: Planning a future for Joliet hospital neighborhoods – past and present

Several AMITA Health St. Joseph Medical Center employees and local officials look through maps and proposed hospital improvements Thursday, April 18, 2019, during an open house for AMITA Health St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, Ill.
Several AMITA Health St. Joseph Medical Center employees and local officials look through maps and proposed hospital improvements Thursday, April 18, 2019, during an open house for AMITA Health St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, Ill.

Hospitals typically are centers of community pride in addition to being medical centers.

Joliet is trying to bolster and reinvigorate that pride with tax increment financing districts designed to bring new development both around the hospital that is here and to the location of the one that left in 2012.

Both efforts will be challenging, but there are signs of hope.

Amita Health Saint Joseph Medical Center Joliet showed it wants to be a leader in the solution when it hosted two days of open houses and visioning sessions April 15 to 18. The gatherings were designed to put some focus on what could be the future of the Saint Joseph neighborhood.

For starters, the area would be called Saint Joseph Square.

Joliet Economic Development Director Steve Jones noted identification could be useful in creating entryways, street signs and other markers establishing a sense of character.

Saint Joseph Square would run roughly between Jefferson Street and Glenwood Avenue and between Hammes and Republic avenues – the boundary lines of the TIF district.

Looking at the map of the future created by the visioning sessions, it was easy to smirk a bit.

One grand idea is to bring food stores, groceries and restaurants to the area west of the hospital and along Republic Avenue.

Republic Avenue is home to the first electric fence allowed under a new city ordinance because a truck repair business wants to keep out homeless people it says have been coming off the Joliet Junction Trail and into box trucks at night.

But you have to start somewhere. No one was suggesting the neighborhood would be transformed in the next year.

Mayor Bob O’Dekirk recently announced he would create a task force on homelessness to look at problems in areas, including the Joliet Junction Trail. Some worry about the mayor’s intentions. But the city also needs to worry about the economic health of key areas, and Saint Joseph Square stands more of a chance if businesses don’t feel the need to build electric fences.

The TIF district for the Saint Joseph neighborhood was created in part because O’Dekirk and other city officials wanted to bolster the hospital district. Joliet officials were caught off guard when Silver Cross announced in 2007 it was moving to New Lenox.

It’s dubious whether Joliet could have done anything to prevent Silver Cross from leaving. Hospital officials said as much at the time. Still, Joliet now is trying to redevelop the vacant areas that still remain since Silver Cross moved in 2012. A TIF District for the area was approved April 16, on the same day that the Saint Joseph visioning sessions started.

Much has been done already at the old Silver Cross campus: the Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic, Hope Manor apartments for homeless veterans and the expansion of the CN railyard. But the actual hospital was never put back to use, and it was torn down last year as both Silver Cross and city officials hope for new developments.

• Bob Okon is a longtime Herald-News reporter. He can be reached at 815-280-4121 or bokon@shawmedia.com.

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