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Local
Kankakee River State Park reopens visitor center

KANKAKEE — Step into the Visitor Center at the Kankakee River State Park and you step into history.

It was built when the park opened in 1948. At that time, the park included 35 acres that had been donated by Chicagoan Ethel Sturges Dummer in 1938.

The area the center occupies was once where equipment used in the park, like a tractor, was stored.

Now, there are preserved remains of waterfowl, owls, hawks, deer as well as a bobcat, river otter, heron and fawn.

Most were donated but some came through other means — a bald eagle collided with a power transmission line, Site Superintendent Stacey Johnson said.

“It’s the old taxidermy. It’s people being in and out over the years. It’s old knowledge. It’s a small museum,” Adam Minton said.

There is even an old library card catalog that now houses different items from the park that visitors can open and discover what they are. And a few critters, including a couple of snakes and turtles and a rescued raccoon, call the center home.

For this summer and fall, Minton was hired as the conservation education representative for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources at Kankakee. He is completing his undergraduate studies at Arizona State University, majoring in conservation biology and ecology.

Johnson was in charge of the center from 1995 until she transferred in 2013 to another DNR site as an assistant superintendent.

Since 2018 there has not been a seasonal staffer to run the center, Johnson said.

Johnson is hopeful to keep the center open.

The position runs from May to October. If Johnson gets an applicant for the 2022 season, the center will be able to stay open.

“The last couple of years, we did not have any applicants, so I’m hoping we will next year,” Johnson said.

As for this season, Johnson said Minton was in charge of getting the center operational.

Johnson said they had a soft opening for the center last month. It was announced via the park’s Facebook page.

The center is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday through Monday.

“It’s a very busy place, ‘’ Johnson added. “It’s hands-on and the kids love it.”

Minton said some kids who have camped at the park with their families have been repeat visitors.

The center has been a key in educating students about wildlife, the park and the river.

“It was a huge part of this interpretive program at one time,” Johnson said. “I had students come here from Kankakee County, Will County, even Cook County and down into Iroquois County.

“It’s nice that we have Adam here and we have the position for six months to have this open.”

Johnson said they would go to the schools during the wintertime and give them an introductory program. Then the students would come out to the park and center in the spring for a hands-on experience.


Kankakee
Former commissioner at odds with park board

Former Kankakee Valley Park District commissioner J.J. Hollis is upset with a recent decision the district made that bans him for renting any park facilities for a year.

Hollis, who was a KVPD commissioner for 14 years, spoke during the public comment portion of Monday’s board meeting at the Bird Park administration building.

“It’s disheartening to say the least,” Hollis said.

Hollis hosted an event on July 24 at Beckman Park where several cars and motorcycles were parked on the grass in violation of city and park ordinances, alcohol was consumed outside of the park building and several complaints were made for excessive noise, according to district officials. Tents were also put up which is against park regulations.

Dayna Heitz, executive director of the KVPD, said alcohol can only be consumed inside park buildings. Hollis had rented the park building that is between the baseball fields and the pavilion that is south of the building.

“At no point in time do we allow alcohol in the parks,” she said.

Heitz also said tents are not allowed because of insurance liability issues. Tents have to be professionally installed to prevent injuries if toppled.

The violations of the rules led to Hollis being banned from rentals for one year.

“This was my decision with backing from a majority of the board,” Heitz said.

Hollis said to the board that the event went smoothly with a day of music, food and fun.

“The police came to us and asked us to have some people move their cars off the grass, and we did just that,” he said. “There were no negative incidents that day besides the unwarranted calls made by some people in the Beckman Park area.”

The park district has received numerous noise complaints from parties at Beckman Park in the past. Complaint calls were made to Kankakee City Council members and to park district commissioners for the event Hollis held on July 24, Heitz said.

“Those are some of the rules [Hollis] put in place during his 14 years on the board,” Heitz said. “I thought it was embarrassing to the district.”

Hollis said he was stunned to receive the letter informing him of the one-year ban because of tents, loud music and cars on the grass.

“I see these things happen all throughout the KVPD system every week, and I don’t see anything wrong with it,” he said. “The parks are for the people to have fun, not to be quiet. It isn’t a library.”

Hollis said that while he was on the board, he heard complaints about people being loud at a park, playing basketball or using a gazebo.

“And 100 percent of the time it was people of color in a park that was in a predominantly white neighborhood,” said Hollis, who is Black. “And a Heil Park incident where a resident of that area took down a basketball goal because they didn’t want African-Americans playing basketball in their neighborhood.”

Hollis said he also experienced it himself when he was playing basketball with his sons and friends at McBroom Park five years ago, and the police were called because they were told kids were being belligerent.

“These incidents as well as numerous others, including my event, are point-blank racist in nature and need to stop,” he said. “When are we going to start treating each other as neighbors instead of treating people of color like the enemy? This isn’t the ‘50s and ‘60s, and Black people can only go to certain places. There are no longer whites-only bathrooms and whites-only water fountains. And the last time I checked, not whites-only parks.”

During the commissioners’ forum portion of the meeting, board member Bill Spriggs said the consequences for Hollis were “a little harsh.”

Board president Ray Eads said the district has a recent negative history, and that there has been favoritism shown.

“If we’re expecting the citizenry of the community to abide by the rules, then a commissioner who has been here, as he said for 14 years, should be above and beyond that and should know and set an example for the rest of the citizenry,” Eads said. “And for him to blatantly ignore them and to expect special dispensation, I disagree. He above anybody should know better than this. And this, I’m sorry, doesn’t cut it.”


Local
Bradley puts business corridor redevelopment plan in motion

BRADLEY — Bradley is laying out plans which it projects could lead to $160 million of redevelopment and new construction within its newly defined business district, during the next 23 years, which would be the lifespan of the district.

The Bradley Village Board on Monday approved an ordinance to conduct a public hearing which will lead to the creation of a business district consisting of 1,187 acres and 913 property parcels, which is expected to be ratified on Sept. 13.

The proposed district encompasses properties in and around the village’s key commercial districts, including Kinzie Avenue-Illinois 50, Northfield Square mall, East and West Broadway streets, Schuyler Avenue and Kennedy Drive.

This plan has been in the making for more than a year. The village board adopted the final Kinzie Avenue-Route 50 & West Broadway Redevelopment Framework Plan in late April.

The discussion has now shifted to bringing the plan to life.

To aid in that aspect of the plan, the village will introduce the creation of a “Business District.” Within the district a special tax that enacts an additional 1 percentage point onto the total sales tax within Bradley, raising it from 7.25 percent to 8.25 percent.

This increased tax rate is projected to generate more than $100 million during the span of 23 years. The money generated will be obligated to eradicate blight within the boundaries of the Kinzie Avenue/Illinois 50 and West Broadway Corridor, as well as provide incentives to bring amenities to Bradley.

RESIDENTS REBATE

Because the tax increase is only assessed within the business district and can only be used within the district, state law states it does not need to be voted on and ratified by village residents.

As a trade-off to village residents, the board agreed to rebate $120 annually to every village household beginning on Jan. 1, 2023. The increased sales tax rate takes effect Jan. 1, 2022.

When the village increased in sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 7.25 percent in March 2020, it was approved by the village voters.

After Monday’s board meeting, Bradley Mayor Mike Watson said the time is now for Bradley to reinvest and reinvigorate this sprawling district if Bradley is going to maintain its stature as the region’s retail and commercial hub.

“This is crucial for the village to move forward in a substantial way,” Watson said. “... We expect this to create a huge boost to our region.”

Watson added: “It is essential for the Village of Bradley to establish a business district as the retail hub of Kankakee County. ... The business district is an investment that will benefit many industries, create self-sustaining jobs, allow the village to continue keeping property taxes low and assist in the beautification of Bradley’s commercial corridor.”

VACANCY RATE GROWS

The business district has been an underperforming section of Bradley for the past several years.

Since 2015, according to Bradley figures, the properties within the proposed business district, grew by a 9.7 percent equalized assessed valuation rate, while the rest of the village grew at a rate of 15.1 percent.

The village administration said the slow-growth rate reflects deterioration and the presence of improperly subdivided parcels which may be affecting the area’s economic potential, reducing its appeal.

There is also a significant and growing vacancy rate with the business district. The village noted between 2019 and 2021, retail vacancy within the district increased from 3.4 percent to 21 percent.

The district vacancies include two large retail areas within Northfield Square, the former Carson’s men’s and the former JC Penney’s stores, both sites the village currently owns.


Local
Simms' sentencing hear delayed until September

URBANA — The former executive director of the region’s wastewater treatment plant and Kankakee’s Environmental Services Utilities department, Richard Simms, had his sentencing hearing rescheduled for September.

Simms, formerly of Kankakee and currently a resident of Marietta, Ohio, will be sentenced at a 2:30 p.m. Sept. 20 hearing in U.S. District Court in Urbana.

According to online court records, Monday’s hearing was canceled due to a misunderstanding. No other information was available.

Simms agreed to plead guilty during his March 1 court date. Simms was indicted on the fraud charge in August 2020.

He is facing a federal prison sentence ranging from 30 to 37 months and to repay the approximate $1,257,000 paid from the ESU and $768,000 from Kankakee River Metropolitan Agency, the region’s wastewater treatment plant, from the timeframe of October 2014 to April 2018. ESU is the Kankakee department that oversees Kankakee’s public works and sewer system.

Simms, 73, who retired from these positions in April 2018, also agreed to three years of supervised release in the plea deal.

The agreement and the pending sentencing will bring to a conclusion an extended investigation of a man who was highly respected within the community during his tenure.

According to the court document, Simms and his computer software development firm, Plum Flower International LTD, submitted payment invoices totaling $2,025,000.

Simms, however, never had approval from KRMA nor the ESU board of directors to spend this money for software development as the organizations never entered into contracts with him for this purpose.

KRMA is responsible for treating wastewater from its member municipalities: Kankakee, Bradley, Bourbonnais and Aroma Park. It also treats wastewater from Manteno and Chebanse by intergovernmental agreement.

During the five-year time frame in question, Simms received more than $2.5 million in salary and legitimate payments: approximately $1.1 million from KRMA and $1.6 from ESU.

Simms registered Plum Flower in March 2014 with the State of Illinois purportedly to develop a software application for medical companies to track medical records.

A federal investigation reported that although Simms did not have board approval or contracts with his engineering firm to develop software, he submitted fraudulent and inflated invoices to KRMA and ESU for software development. Simms is accused of circumventing KRMA’s invoice payment procedure by submitting invoices directly to its accounting firm. As a result of this practice, KRMA’s superintendent and administrative assistant did not approve or were unaware of the invoices.

Plum Flower used approximately $161,000 of the funds, federal documents showed, to pay another company to create a software application — called Eco App Pro — which they intended to sell on the open market. Most of the remaining funds were used for the personal benefit of Simms, according to court documents.


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