City’s Garfield Park expansion plans include acquiring roughly a dozen properties

DANVILLE, Ill. (WCIA) — It began as a project to renovate and reopen the only public pool in Danville. A year later, the roughly $3 to $4 million improvements ballooned into a $12 million remake of Garfield Park which includes the acquisition of more than a dozen properties on E Fairchild and Industrial Streets: mostly homes, a couple of vacant lots and a local machine shop.

Aside from overhauling the existing park, the city’s plans involve multiple new pavilions, playgrounds and a football field. Mayor Rickey Williams Jr. says the community is behind the project.

There is dissent from at least one homeowner who hopes to stay put in the home she’s owned on East Fairchild for nearly three decades and she worries if she’s forced to leave, the amount of money the city is offering to buy the house for won’t cover the cost of moving into a new one, even with a significant downsize.

Wanda Deck, 80, said she got a letter from the city “probably six weeks ago” explaining the city’s plans to acquire her two-story, three-bedroom home for an initial offer of $25,000.

“I was shocked that they told me that I gotta get out,” Deck said.

Her name is also attached to an adjacent home. She recently transferred the title using a quitclaim deed. Deck purchased both properties with her late husband Dale Deck. He passed away in September, leaving her to start packing up decades worth of memories.

“No money could buy, you know, what we’ve had living here all these years…We’ve been here a long time to have to just give it up and tear it down,” Deck said.

She said city officials initially offered $50,000 for both houses over the phone, adding, “And that’s when I said, ‘no.'” Deck’s grandaughter, Amanda Newkirk — who has also been in direct communication with the city — says city administration confirmed to her the price point for the home Deck lives in was $25,000. Reporters requested a copy of the letter but the city denied it, citing 5 ILCS 140/7(1)(r) which exempts records related to real estate purchase negotiations “until those negotiations have been completed or otherwise terminated.” State statute also exempts records involving property in a “pending or actually and reasonably contemplated eminent domain proceeding.”

Mayor Williams said the city has no intention of using eminent domain — a power that allows government entities to obtain citizens’ property for public use — to take Deck’s or any other property but made it clear that he “doesn’t see a world” where one or two homeowners could keep their property now that the city plans to acquire it.

“We’re not going to stop a project that benefits tens of thousands of people for one person,” he said.

“Number one: It would get rid of blight. Number two: It would increase visibility of the parks, and just the beautification of the parks. But number three: [It] would also improve the safety because then even just police driving by could see through more easily, people can see across the park more easily to see their children and such.”

Generally speaking, a park appears to qualify as a “public purpose,” allowing for the property to be acquired by eminent domain. The question then becomes, is the compensation fair? The law requires fair and just compensation be awarded to affected property owners based on the “highest and best use” of the property. If a property owner disagrees, they can take a government entity to court where a jury would determine that figure.

Map of existing Garfield Park (in green), properties the city plans to acquire or has acquired (in blue)

“These initial offers were based on the market value in that area. Unfortunately, you know, it’s an area of town where there’s a lot of blight and dilapidation,” Williams said when asked if $25,000 is a fair market value for Deck’s home.

Public records from the Vermilion County Assessor’s office place the fair cash value of Deck’s home at $32,439. That figure comes from an assessment required every few years in Illinois to calculate a homeowner’s tax rate. Although it’s meant to reflect the market value, it doesn’t always equate to the current selling price of a home for a number of reasons.

For example, sometimes assessors will put a freeze on raising the tax valuation for seniors on a fixed income so they don’t owe more taxes year after year even though their income remains the same. It’s not immediately clear if that’s the case with Deck’s home, although she is on a fixed income.

Longtime Champaign realtor Todd Salen, who does some work in Danville, said it’s not uncommon in this market “to have houses that are significantly undervalued or under assessed.”

“The assessor doesn’t arbitrarily increase the value of houses in a bull market like we’ve had the last two years. And neither does an appraiser use that number in any way when they’re trying to come up with the value of the house,” said Salen who recently joined The Real Estate Group in Champaign.

The city sent an independent appraiser to Deck’s home Thursday at her request. She said those results are a week out.

‘Dilapidated’ is not the way reporters visiting with Deck Wednesday would describe her home. Four properties were sold to the city so far at a mid-May council meeting. The first — a rental property whose seller lives out of state — went for $45,000. The second — a vacant lot — sold to the city for $20,000. A third property — a home that those in the neighborhood say has been vacant for years — sold for $45,000. The only other property that has finished negotiations was owned by someone who lives at the residence. That home went for $45,000. Closing dates have not been set, according to the mayor.

A longtime business is also in the wake of the proposed park expansion. Dines Machine and Manufacturing opened in 1983. Plant Manager Kevin McKenzie said they’re working with the city and have looked at a few alternative locations, but nothing is a done deal at this point.

“But we also are negotiating with everyone,” Williams assured.

Meanwhile, Wanda Deck is slowly beginning to pack away her countless collectibles and family photos. It’s not just about the money for her, it’s about the upheaval late in life.

“I don’t want to buy a house at my age, you know? I mean, they’re wanting over $100,000. And why should I go into debt, you know, at my age to buy a house?” she said.

Williams gave his word that the city would help facilitate her move and that the timeline for vacating about 15 properties is flexible. Construction on the existing pool, also wouldn’t begin for another year.

“Yes, we’ve already discussed those things with her,” he said.

Construction timeline for the Garfield Park pool (Courtesy: Danville Mayor Rickey Williams Jr.)

Williams, who was the director of the Danville Boys and Girls Club for years, was excited to talk about the proposed grassy football field.

“Having a new football field to support the probably 800 to 1,000 kids that participate in youth football through either football or cheerleading, I think that’s gonna be awesome,” he shared.

“To give them a proper park and playground that doesn’t flood. Those things are huge. It does a lot for how people feel about themselves, how they feel about their neighborhood and how they feel about the community.”

$12 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds through the American Rescue Plan have been set aside for the expansion of the park.

The acquisition of the additional about 15 properties is not included in that budget. Those will be paid for using a portion of the city’s $835,000 Community Development Fund for Fiscal Year 2022-2023, according to the mayor. He said the city may dip into its Community Reinvestment Fund as well to acquire the properties they plan to demolish. Both funds make up a portion of the city’s General Fund.

Mayor Williams says this budget allotted extra money as a contingency. He expects the project will cost closer to $12 million

Garfield is the first of several parks Williams hopes to revitalize during his time as mayor.