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Yohnka's new role: Kankakee riverfront leader

KANKAKEE — Bill Yohnka was riding his bike through Kankakee on a midsummer day.

He was in the western portion of the city and crossed over the Kankakee River on the bike and pedestrian bridge immediately east of Riverside Medical Center. The bridge connects to the biking path along Kennedy Drive.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is cool,’” he recalled earlier this week. “I was thinking this bridge, this path, will last longer than any of us. I remember thinking that I’m glad people did this for us.”

The 46-year-old Kankakeean is now setting a course to help lead what could be the city’s — and the region’s, for that matter — crown jewel in terms of regional recreational development.

Recently hired as the Kankakee Riverfront Society’s director, Yohnka will be the face of the fundraising effort to bring in millions to take the ambitious, 4-mile riverwalk off the drawing board and onto the frontage areas of the Kankakee River.

The riverwalk is to stretch from the Frank Lloyd Wright museum at South Harrison Avenue and reach to the Riverside Medical Center campus.

The ultimate cost from start to finish is anticipated to be in the $30 million range.

Some may call the task daunting. Yohnka, a 1994 Bishop McNamara Catholic High School and 1998 Lewis University graduate, notes the project will not sink or swim due to him alone. He explained it is going to need many hands to pull the plan from concept to reality.

“One person will not make it happen,” he said. “It is going to take a lot of people working for the same goal. ... They are going to make it happen.”

But make no mistake, Yohnka will be at the helm.

He wasn’t even sure he would seek the position. The riverfront society made it known a director — who would have the chief function of organizing the funding effort — was being sought.

The first round of applicants did not lead to a hire.

When a second request for candidates was posted, Yohnka saw the story in the Journal. He thought about it for about three weeks. In late July, just as the Merchant Street MusicFest was swinging into motion, he submitted his resume.

One of the most recognizable faces within Kankakee County, Yohnka is now charting a path for how this effort will unfold over the course of at least the next three years.

An open house event is being planned to formally kick off this effort. A time and location are still being set, but Yohnka is targeting November.

While the former Kankakee School District community engagement specialist and former economic development specialist for Kankakee begins to develop a road map for his new position, he sat down for some questions with the Journal.

What makes you the perfect choice for the Currents of Kankakee riverwalk development?

I have the right combination of experience, skills and passion for Kankakee. I’m someone who legitimately loves utilizing the river. I want future generations to love it as much as I do.

I bike along the river. I kayak on the river. I love stone skipping. There are so many possibilities.

What do you think the riverwalk development will provide to the future of the Kankakee region?

The river is an amazing asset. It’s been underutilized. This is opportunity. This is about facing the river instead of it being in the backdrop.

We are going to do more with this river. I’ve heard people say, “Why not do more with this river?” That question will be answered.

I want to visit other locations to see what they have done, see what ideas we can get. I also want to see who will want to be next to the river in terms of business. There is so much opportunity here.

How long did you consider submitting an application for this position?

Just a few weeks. I got some prodding, but this is a challenge I wanted. I had some people come up to me and ask “Bill, why aren’t you doing this?” I said, “OK. I’ll do it.”

Does the riverfront development sell itself or do people/organizations need to be sold on it?

The river sells itself. People love the river. But when it comes to spending money, people need to be sold on this. They have to be sold on how this benefits them and the investment they are making.

For sure, people do not want development tied to taxes. This must come from grants and fundraising.

… Even those businesses or organizations who are not near the river can benefit from this. We want to make this a special place for those who may not be physically connected to it. We want them to be able to see the value of it in a bigger perspective.

How would you determine Bill Yohnka’s success as riverfront director?

If someone were to ask “What is going on?” and you proudly say “You need to see our riverfront. Look at what they have done to our riverfront. Look at what we’ve done.”

I’d like to be able have some virtual reality glasses that would show people what we are going to do here. I want to get people excited about what can take place here.

Currently, what do you think is the public’s view of this project? What will the public’s view be in three years?

I would say in general people are in favor of this. But portions of the population wonder “Is this really happening?” Our job is to show them that it is happening. The first site [East Riverwalk near the East River Street and South Schuyler Avenue intersection] has been cleaned up.

Construction is starting next year. People have to see real things before they can believe.

In three years, this project will be on its way. It will be happening. By then people will be able to imagine what it can be. That’s why this first phase is so important.

Fortitude Community Outreach gains 1-year exemption

KANKAKEE — Beginning Nov. 1, Fortitude Community Outreach once again will be able to provide overnight shelter for up to 18 people seeking a place to stay for the night.

However, it appears this most likely will be the organization’s last year to operate its shelter in the 2nd Ward’s former St. Paul’s Lutheran School, 240 S. Dearborn Ave.

At Monday’s Kankakee City Council meeting, council members overwhelmingly approved the one-year extension — by a 12-1 vote — allowing the shelter to operate from Nov. 1 through April 29.

The only council member voting against the extension for the six-night-per-week shelter was 2nd Ward Alderman David Baron. Baron reasoned the organization was provided ample opportunity to make alternative arrangements — such as returning to its previous overnight model of rotating from selected sites — but failed to do so.

“St. Paul’s is not the right location for a full-time shelter,” Baron said before the vote. But “here we go again.”

Baron said it should have become clear to Fortitude leadership many months ago that plans to construct a new site in the 100 block of North Washington Avenue would not happen because of rising construction costs.

Baron said there are development plans in the downtown area, and a homeless shelter simply does not mesh there.

At the school site, Fortitude provides nightly shelter for up to 18.

“Their model puts a real strain on immediate vicinity,” he said after the council meeting. “There is no perfect answer on this, but there is no justification for extending this here. I hope North Washington will bear fruit.”

Fortitude is about $600,000 short of its needed $1.2 million to construct its planned 4,800-square-foot shelter on two donated lots in the 100 block of North Washington.

If built, the Washington Avenue site basically would double Fortitude’s capacity.

Third Ward Alderman David Crawford has been discussing the matter with neighboring municipal leaders regarding assisting Fortitude with American Rescue Plan Act funding.

Crawford noted he has received positive responses from municipal leaderships, but it is up to Fortitude to state their case to the governmental body leaderships.

Crawford also said he believes the Kankakee City Council would be willing to earmark $100,000 toward Fortitude’s effort.

After the council vote, Fortitude director Dawn Broers said the organization most certainly would meet with leaders of other county communities such as Bradley and Bourbonnais, as well as the Kankakee County Board, in an effort to gain funding.

“Having someone opening doors for us is very important,” Broers said.

Bradley Mayor Mike Watson would be one of those people the Fortitude administration would discuss this situation with.

Watson noted the village received $1.8 million of ARPA funds, and that money has been earmarked. That fact, however, does not mean the village would not participate in aiding Fortitude.

“We are receptive to the idea of some type of participation,” Watson said. “A conversation never hurts. There should be some group participation probably. I don’t think it would be too tough to get some participation” from other municipalities, he added.

Police investigate armed robbery of Bourbonnais business

BOURBONNAIS — Bourbonnais police are investigating an armed robbery that occurred Saturday night at a business in the 500 block of Main Street NW.

According to a police report, officers were dispatched to Brow Salon, 541 Main St. NW, at about 7:30 p.m.

Officers talked to a store employee and customer who were inside the building when a man entered at about 7 p.m., the report said.

The man pointed a gun at the victims and asked the employee to give him the money in the cash register. The suspect took the customer’s purse, the report said.

The victims stated the suspect moved them into a restroom and told them not to come out or he would shoot them, the report said.

The victims said after about 10 minutes they came out, saw the suspect was gone and then called 911, according to the report.

The suspect fled on foot. He got away with an undetermined amount of cash from the register.

The customer said she had $100 to $150 in cash, a debit card, a gift card and her driver’s license in the purse, the report said.

Police reviewed surveillance video from the area, according to the report.

From that video, the suspect appeared to be a dark-skinned male wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, black mask, black pants and black Nike shoes with white soles, the report said.

District 111 staff, Kays Media to cover community engagement duties

KANKAKEE — The departure of Bill Yohnka from Kankakee School District 111 to become executive director of the Kankakee Riverfront Society means the school district is now down its community engagement specialist.

Yohnka held the role for District 111 since May 2017. He resigned to become the executive director of the Kankakee Riverfront Society; the organization announced his selection Oct. 6.

Superintendent Genevra Walters said Yohnka won’t be replaced with a new hire; rather, a team of staff will cover the roles and responsibilities of his position, including supporting the Kays Media student journalism program.

That team will include Rebecca Parks, community partnership coordinator; Athletic Director Ronnie Wilcox; Kays Media instructors Tim Keown, Ryan Pietraszewski, Elijah Brooks and Andrew Beasly; and Zion Ali, who provides broadcasting support to Kays Media.

“They will be covering the community engagement part that Bill Yohnka did and [managing] the social media and media platforms that he helped manage,” she said.

Wilcox and the Kays Media staff worked together with Yohnka to develop the Kays Media program, she noted.

Parks was hired using the Community Partnership Grant awarded to the district through the Illinois State Board of Education.

“When we hired Bill Yohnka, we did not have Kays Media,” Walter noted. “So now, with Kays Media and the Community Partnership Grant, we think that we can cover all the things that he did.”

Yohnka also took the lead on livestreaming Kankakee School Board meetings so that members of the public could view them remotely.

The meetings were previously livestreamed on Facebook, but more recently, they have been livestreamed directly to the Kays Media YouTube channel, with the viewing link provided via the district’s Facebook.

Walters said that a Kays Media instructor will take over the duties of livestreaming board meetings.

In the transition, the instructor had not yet been informed of his new duties at the time of last week’s board meeting, so it was not livestreamed.

Walters said it was a “glitch” that the Oct. 11 meeting was not recorded, and future meetings will continue to be livestreamed to the Kays Media YouTube channel.

The videos also can be accessed and viewed later on the channel.

— Stephanie Markham/Daily Journal

Resolution OK’d for Bourbonnais property tax referendum

BOURBONNAIS — Village of Bourbonnais trustees approved a resolution of their intent regarding use of proposed sales tax for property tax relief at Monday’s board meeting.

There is a referendum on the Nov. 8 general election ballot for village residents to decide if a 1% sales tax should be added to the current 6.25% rate.

If the referendum is passed by simple majority vote, funds would be used to offer property tax rebates for single family, owner-occupied homes on the village’s portion of a village resident’s tax bill.

The village sales tax excludes grocery items such as food as well as vehicle titles or registrations in the state, according to state law.

Bourbonnais is a non-home rule community, which means such a proposed sales tax increase must be approved by residents. The referendum would pass on a simple majority vote.

If the referendum passes, homeowners would receive their first rebate in 2024, Bourbonnais administrator Mike Van Mill said.

Currently, the village receives an average of $285 annually from a homeowner, village officials said.

This amount is based upon the U.S. Census Bureau estimate of Bourbonnais’ median value of $188,000 for owner-occupied housing units (in 2016-2020).

The resolution passed Monday stated this rebate will be offered for 10 years.

However, Bourbonnais officials said they will review the program annually to make sure there are enough funds to continue the rebate.

“We will have to review it yearly to make sure the revenue from the 1% tax is there to pay for the rebate,” Van Mill said.

“We have been doing some computations, and we feel there will be enough to make sure we can have a rebate every year.”

Before the board voted, Randy King pointed out this is not a tax just on village residents.

“This 1% increase not only applies to village residents but all people who shop in the village,” King said.

More than two years ago, Bradley officials approved a plan to annually rebate the village’s portion of a resident’s property tax bill, including business owners.

The sales tax is 8.25% in Bradley with 2% of that going to Bradley.

King co-owns King Music in Bradley. He found the process to file for the rebate easy.

“I found it to be a simple process. There is no red tape,” King said.

Manteno started a property tax rebate program this year.

Bourbonnais trustees adopted an ordinance earlier this year allowing for the rebate but only if voters in the village approve the referendum.

Van Mill said officials have been asked by residents if such a rebate program could be offered.

“Based upon public feedback received, solidifying longevity for the property tax relief program was important to residents,” Bourbonnais Mayor Paul Schore said.

“With this resolution, it reaffirms to constituents the intent for the proposed 1% sales tax and 100% property tax rebates for at least 10 years. This isn’t a one and done situation. It’s meant to provide relief.”

Now it will be up to Bourbonnais homeowners to decide.

“This gives the voters, the citizens the chance to decide. Rather than imposing something like this on them,” trustee Bruce Greenlee said.