Pickup trucks and construction equipment crowd the lawn of the Illinois Executive Mansion and the block across the street.
Gov. Bruce Rauner and his wife, Diana, have raised the money for the $15 million mansion makeover, which is slated to be complete by the end of the summer. And the governor is eyeing the city-owned block, dubbed the “Y-block” for the YWCA that used to sit there, as an extension of that project.
The vision is for open greenspace on the 2.35-acre lot with fountains, tall trees, small hills and an amphitheater.
Mayor Jim Langfelder supports the idea as a way to attract more people to Springfield’s downtown, without expending much public money.
“It’s going to be a gift to the city, transforming this entire area - and that’s what’s exciting for me,” he said in a video produced by the city promoting the idea.
Springfield attorney Don Tracy is leading efforts on behalf of the governor. Tracy said Rauner has pledged $1 million to the project and the fundraising power to get the rest of the projected $8 million needed. Springfield would chip in for utilities and snow plowing, and a nonprofit to be set up for the project would be responsible for most maintenance for 10 years.
But many downtown business owners aren’t sure this idea is best for ongoing revitalization efforts.
“We're not against the park,” said Kevin Kuhn, the president of the city’s association of business owners and supporters, Downtown Springfield Inc., and co-owner of Kuhn and Trello Consulting Engineers. “But I think there also needs to be something else in there. It's a big block.”
Kuhn and DSI executive director Lisa Clemmons Stott say the two lots present a unique opportunity to develop a whole city block, which could have open space and apartments, a movie theater, restaurants or offices.
“It’s a tax-generating opportunity, and our goal to keep the city strong is to have that good strong tax base in downtown with sales tax and property tax,” Stott said.
Ward 1 Ald. Chuck Redpath shared the concern that the park plan does not generate revenue. Plus, he points out the city of Springfield would be on the hook for paying utilities and having police patrol the park at a time when finances are already stretched.
“Adding more debt with utilities and not generating any tax money is going to be burdensome for us,” Redpath said. He added he's happy that Rauner has taken an interest, but he would also like to see mixed-use development, which the city’s own request for proposals specifically called for.
The request also suggested having open space on the southern portion, nearest to the Executive Mansion, because of infrastructure concerns. Springfield’s major sewer line runs under part of the area, and public works officials have advised against building anything there.
Two proposals submitted nearly a year ago along with the North Mansion group’s included some type of development on the north end of the block, with a park on the other.
One plan had an apartment building with around 100 units, while the other proposed a commercial complex with university offices, a movie theater and restaurant. Langfelder said that while the university offices would be ideal, there wasn’t any guarantee the University of Illinois Springfield or another local school would commit to the project. And the proposal for apartments had a funding gap of $5 million.
A third proposal aimed to build a plaza for public use, reserving the other part for future development.
But Tracy said Rauner is firm on that point – no buildings on the block.
“His vision is to have this block … be a destination park for people, but also be a vista for the Executive Mansion renovation,” Tracy said.
He points out there is some flexibility in the proposed terms of the agreement. There is space carved out in one corner where a developer could construct building in the future. It comes with a contingency: the sitting governor of Illinois would have to sign off on it.
Tracy said getting Rauner’s approval was necessary because he has to go out and sell the idea to other donors.
“You have to honor … the vision of that donor, because if you don't, you're probably not going to be able to raise the money,” Tracy said.
Stott disagrees with that approach.
“We have 150 businesses who've made a lot of their own personal investments in the growth of downtown and what downtown should be,” she said. “And so to me they have just as much a right as any sitting governor of the state of Illinois, because we’re the capital, to decide what happens there.”
The proposal met resistance from some aldermen, too. Langfelder presented the park design and terms of an agreement to them and a council chamber packed with union representatives this week.
Union leaders said they are upset that Tracy and his group are not planning on pursuing a project labor agreement, which sets local hiring standards. Tracy said the group does plan to hire some union contractors.
The city council tabled the proposed park and agreement with the North Mansion group, putting the plan on hold for now.
Still, concerns remain. Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner, who is also chair of the Sangamon County Democrats, said after the meeting she had a lot of questions.
“I'm concerned about what if's, what happens, what happens if they don't reach their fundraising goal? What happens if there is a new governor in November?” she asked.
The goal is to raise all the funds before the election, Tracy told NPR Illinois.
For now, Langfelder says he’ll negotiate more with Tracy and the North Mansion group in hopes of reaching a compromise that will please everyone.
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Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.