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I watched the city council meeting on Tuesday to discover what goals the city council are prioritizing.  It was a somber, kind of depressing discussion because, though were goals expressed, I didn’t sense much confidence that any of them are going to happen any time soon.

Every council member was in agreement that the city would benefit from constructing an overpass on MLK over I-72 to open the area up to development and ease traffic along 51.

Another issue that was brought up was parking in downtown.  Though there are several thriving restaurants, there’s few retail shops.  One of the reasons for this is that there isn’t enough available parking.  Downtown parking has been an issue forever with no easy or cheap answers.  Parking meters were removed a few years ago and angled parking was added but there’s only so many areas to park a car.  Nobody offered any solutions but the issue was brought up.

Neighborhood redevelopment, infrastructure, the Us-51 bypass, and the need for major road improvements on Brush College Road were also echoed by many but overshadowing everything was the need to attract more jobs.

Finding money for the goals is tricky.  Increasing taxes and fees is out the window because the city has already been there and done that too many times.  For neighborhood redevelopment, the key is likely public/private partnerships, and possible state/federal grants.  Residency requirements for city employees will definitely be discussed further when union contract talks come up, which I’m sure will go over well!  The city would like to keep city workers here to keep more revenue here.  Residency requirements for new non-union employees has already been approved.  The city is bleeding upper-middle income families to nearby communities, leaving older and lower-income people behind to financially support the city.  That kind of math just doesn’t work.   It’s a tough, tough issue but not unique to Decatur.

I hope I didn’t thoroughly depress everyone.  I’m still optimistic and I am an out-of-the-box thinker, for better or worse.  I think there’s things we can do.

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The city council will be discussing community goals at the July 5th meeting.  A PDF file of the proposed goals can be downloaded from the city’s website.  I’m not going to go over every single item since anyone can read through the document but there were some things that stuck out that I found particularly interesting.

The goals are grouped together into five main categories:

  • Prioritize & Support Infrastructure Improvements
  • Creation of First Class Tech Community
  • Continued Creation – Development Community of Choice
  • Neighborhood Revitalization
  • Organizational Operations

Infrastructure improvements and neighborhood revitalization are fairly self-explanatory.  Organizational operations pertain mainly to city staff operating more efficiently.  The creation of a first class tech community refers to fiber optic cables.  Development community of choice refers to developing pro-growth business policies, connecting Decatur to Amtrak by either bus or rail, extending city bus hours on certain routes, skills training, amongst other things.

Things That Caught My Attention

Respondents requested more business incentives, restaurants on the city’s south side, Chipotle, Trader Joes, Burlington Coat Factory, and a food truck park in front of Northgate Mall.  Road improvements for Mound and Main Street from Garfield to Eldorado were also requested, as well as beautifying the city’s main corridors.

Truck Park?

I would probably agree with all of the public’s recommendations listed in the presentation except the truck park in front of Northgate Mall.  I think Northgate would benefit by demolishing the closed car wash on Pershing to make the mall more visible from Pershing.  With an abandoned eyesore blocking the view of the mall, I can’t imagine it impresses too many prospective retailers.  I don’t think a truck park would impress them either.  A more welcoming and impressive entrance from Pershing is needed, in my opinion.  I’m not opposed to a truck park locating elsewhere in the city if it fits in well with the surroundings.

Mound Road Retail Development

The other main thing that jumped out at me was retail development at the Mound and US 51 intersection.  It is listed as a goal.  The Target area is pretty much full, so I’m assuming the city is wanting to continue to develop other areas in the vicinity, possibly to the north and/or northeast of Target.  This is probably one of the busiest intersections in the city and I’m sure Decatur would love to capture shoppers before they head on north to Forsyth and attract out-of-towners from nearby I-72.

I grew up in the neighborhood directly to the southeast of the intersection so I know a lot of the history surrounding that part of town, from the neighborhood being annexed by the city in the late 80s, when Walmart opened just to the north, to Mound Middle School being closed, and Target being built.  Heck, I remember when Mound Road was rock and horses and chickens lived on the property where Thorntons gas station is now located.  And I’m not THAT old!

I know more land will be developed for retail purposes in that area.  It’s just a matter of time and I’m okay with that as long as it doesn’t destroy the character and property values of the surrounding neighborhoods.  If it’s another gaming parlor, heck no!  If it’s tasteful restaurants and retail that would fit well inside a neighborhood, I’d consider it.  It could be a tremendous asset to the area if it’s done with the neighborhood in mind. My land management training is kicking in here.  Natural resource management is primarily about land management.

I’d like to see standards built into any type of proposed development in that area with strict guidelines as to what can locate there and what can’t to preserve what’s already functioning well.  It makes no sense to sacrifice a neighborhood for retail.  Responsible homeowners tend to stay and remain invaluable assets to the community, if they’re happy in their surroundings and with the city.  Retail businesses come and go.

Well, I’ll end it here because I’m getting long-winded.  I’ll have a rundown of what the council members had to say on here next week.  Have a happy and safe 4th of July!

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We’ve probably all had our fill of national politics.  I know I have, so I thought I’d turn to something that is hopefully a little less absurd – local politics, as in the city council, school board and park district.  All three have a greater impact on our lives than anyone in the White House does, assuming that person in the White House doesn’t blow up the world.  I can’t give any guarantees, considering one of the candidates.

Just little hints are beginning to surface on how the local races will present themselves.  For the city council, the seats of Jerry Dawson, Chris Funk, and Pat McDaniel are up for election in 2017.  The mayor’s seat is also up for election, currently held by appointed mayor Julie Moore-Wolf, who took the seat after the death of Mayor McElroy.  Dawson is the only one that has indicated that he will not seek reelection.

As far as who the challengers will be for those seats, there’s not much to go on just yet.  Chris Riley, who is currently an elected commissioner serving the park district, is the first to publicly throw his hat in.  If he wins then his seat with the park district will be open, assuming his term is about up.  I believe it is.

The school board is kind of a mess at the moment.  After the fiasco of not renewing the contract of a superintendent most people felt was doing a good job, not many people are pleased.  Admittedly, I’ve never followed the school board that well.  It’s enough to try to keep up with the city council and park district but I know there’s a lot of discontentment out there with the school board.  I’m not sure who will seek reelection and who the challengers will be.  I think everybody is ducking for cover at the moment.

If social media comments, and just my personal conversations with Decaturites means anything, there’s quite a few people not terribly impressed with the city council.  Several increased taxes, some decisions that didn’t sit well with much of the electorate, and a very unpopular city manager hasn’t made this bunch the most beloved council of all time.  I’m not just hearing dissatisfaction among the usual naysayers but of people who usually are much more positive, so it’s different this time.  The only council member that is getting any love at all is Bill Faber.

Since I have been writing this blog for so long, I’ve been through quite a few elections and I’ve learned the type of candidate that usually wins and those that don’t. Without serious name recognition in the community, it is very hard to win.  I’ve seen candidates pour a lot of money into yard signs,  billboards, and commercials and still lose big time.  Labor candidates have a hard time because there’s not many union-affiliated folks out there anymore.  Minority candidates generally have it tough too.  Not many people come out to vote for municipal elections but those that do generally are well-informed.  They follow city politics religiously. So, if you don’t know the issues well, you’ll be found out.  That’s the number one reason why many candidates have failed.

I still remember one interview on the radio in which a candidate’s answer for everything was getting rid of parking meters downtown.  High unemployment?  Parking meters.  Neighborhood woes?  Parking meters.  Cancer?  Parking meters.  It was too painful to listen to.  There’s been some horrendous candidates in the past and unfortunately some won!  And there’s been some that I think deserved more serious consideration and went away wounded.  One thing is certain – it’s always interesting.

 

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Tonight the city council will likely make a decision on the rezoning request for the new owners of Northgate Mall.  U-Haul purchased the property several months ago and is seeking to turn it into a a major rental center.  This requires rezoning to M-1 Intense Commercial/Light Industrial District.  The planning commission has recommended the proposed changes, while city staff is recommending denial.  City staff feels that the location is ideal for retail development due to its location and the U-Haul center would completely change the character and vision for a high-traffic commercial corner.

The plan as I understand it from reading the council agenda is that the former K’s Merchandise building would be a climate controlled storage center and the former Hollywood video store would be the retail front for U-Haul.  Rental trucks and cars would be parked in front of the old video rental store along Water Street and possibly the lot to the north.  I’m not clear on that one.

I’m reserving judgement until I hear more at the meeting.  Pershing Road has seen significant development and redevelopment in just the past 5 years and new things are coming.  If my sources are right, northsiders should be happy with what is coming to the former Maverick Steak House lot.

A vacant motel was recently torn down directly across from Northgate Mall on Pershing and is generating interest by new retailers.  Now if we can just get rid of that old car wash but that’s another story…

Other changes have occurred on Pershing in the past few years.  New development has occurred in front of the former WSOY radio station where several new buildings have been constructed.  The lot on the corner of Jasper and Pershing Road, which formerly had a car wash is also seeking rezoning in tonight’s meeting and new retail will likely be locating there soon.   So, a lot of development has recently happened or soon will be happening on Pershing Road.  Now, the city council has to decide if U-Haul’s request is a good decision for the continued redevelopment of the area.

I think if the rezoning request came a couple years ago, the decision probably wouldn’t be so difficult but since Decatur is seeing significant new interest in this part of town, it’s not so easy.  I’m leaning towards supporting the approval of the zoning change but it depends upon what impact it will have upon the desirability of other large vacant spaces in the mall.  If the lot is going to be full of U-Haul trucks, rental cars, trailers and so forth, how does that jibe with other types of retail?  That’s my concern.  If some type of landscaping changes could be made separating the U-Haul parking lot from whatever might come to the rest of the shopping center, I’d be in favor.  I think the impact would be minimal with some attractive, clever traffic flow changes making each area distinct.  As the lot looks now, I think it would look odd.

Below:  How it looks now.

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And the proposed changes: (click on image for larger view), courtesy of the agenda packet:

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UPDATE:  Okay, I watched most of the discussion last night regarding the development and I think I would have approved the rezoning.  I realize it’s a prime commercial retail location but I don’t think this would have jeopardized future development elsewhere in Northgate Mall, or along Pershing Road.  Another issue is now that U-Haul owns the property, what are they going to do with it now that they can’t operate the type of business they would like to?  Are they going to sit on it for years like the previous owners did?  That issue wasn’t addressed last night.  I hope it works out but I think the council made a hasty decision.  I feel something could have been worked out to the benefit of all.

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Haines & Essick’s Closing

I was bummed when I learned that Haines & Essick’s was closing in Decatur.  It’s really the only store I regularly shopped at downtown.  It was always a nice escape during a busy week.  You just don’t get the same feeling shopping in a Walmart.  Walmart could be more entertaining but shopping in downtown was therapy, especially after shopping at Walmart.  Mostly, I enjoyed taking my kids there because it was a unique Decatur experience.  The old building, the squeaky floors, the musty basement smell filled the senses with time and history.  I hope another retailer or a few smaller retailers, assuming it will likely be divided up into smaller units, will fill the space.  I’d hate to think that I’ll never be able to step foot in that building again.  So much of old Decatur is gone and I don’t want to lose what little is left.

Decatur, You’re Killing Me!

Speaking of losing what little is left, I feel like my heart is being stabbed with a dull butter knife every time I drive through the intersection of Pershing and MacArthur.  Recently, two corner lots were rezoned for commercial purposes and that means dozens of old oaks are going to be cut down.  I actually wrote city council members about preserving those trees a few years ago because I knew, sooner or later, it would be targeted by a developer.  I tried to save them.  I can’t stand seeing them go.

Decatur Needs a Roadmap

Something that has become very apparent to me over the past year is that Decatur lacks a clear plan for development because some residents are left wondering if their neighborhood is safe from future changes.  The intersection of 51 and Ash Avenue comes to mind.

Residents were opposed to commercial development in their neighborhood, and a plan to develop in that area was shot down but it’s likely new fights will come.  In fact, our mayor said so.  What would be helpful would be a clearly communicated plan for future development and redevelopment.  It would avoid a lot of bad feelings and potentially derailing development that would be good for the city.

I think we should sit down with a map of Decatur and go through every single part of the city and state what our future objectives are.  The entire community should be involved.  Areas that we want to develop, get them ready for development.  Areas that we want to preserve, preserve them.  Areas that we want to redevelop, get a plan in place to do so.  Nobody should be left wondering what may become of their neighborhood.  I think it would be helpful for prospective new businesses too.  They would know they aren’t going to be up against a fight to locate in an area specifically designated for commercial development.  Yeah, we have zoning regulations that kinda does that but as we know, areas can be rezoned and that process can be very ugly and leave a lot of people disgusted with the city.

Most of all, I would like to see a plan in place that is going to ensure that those areas of the city that are stable and attractive to residents remain that way.  I want to ensure that those areas that need improvement are going to get it.  We’ve had too many examples of disrupting areas that are functioning well, especially on the north side of town.  I sure as heck don’t want our northside to become a congested commercial area, similar to Springfield’s west side.  It’s downright scary to drive over there and it looks terrible too.  Zero character.

We clearly need a plan for our northside that preserves what is good and develops in areas that make more sense.  For instance, getting a bridge over 72 on MLK would open up that area to development, and I don’t think many people would be opposed to it.  I know councilman Dawson has been pushing for a bridge for several years.  I’d like to see it happen too, rather than taking out a desirable neighborhood.  I think the neighborhood presents to outsiders what’s good about Decatur.  It’s welcoming.

Anyway, I think I’ve written enough for now and I need to get back to my ichthyology paper but it was so nice to write about Decatur again.  My months spent away from blogging about Decatur were downright miserable.

 

 

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