By Mike Frey
On either end of Kankakee’s Greenwood Avenue sits two iconic landmarks, Old Fair Park to the north and Cobb Park to the south.
Both are seeped in local history, and their presence on the edges of Greenwood make the 18-block thoroughfare similar in one sense.
But if you navigate the street in either direction, the differences you will find along the way make it clear the distinctions outweigh the similarities.
It’s the type of setting Key City Community Development Corporation finds attractive as it launches the GREENWOODav Initiative. Organized in 2017, Key City is a not-for-profit group with an all-volunteer board. Its stated vision is to “facilitate transformational growth within Kankakee City.’’ Its mission: “To cultivate quality-of-life improvements through long-term, sustainable, economic growth in areas of tourism, entertainment, culture, business development, and home ownership while maintaining the uniqueness of Kankakee.’’
Since forming, Key City is now taking these general concepts in a more specific direction with the emergence of the Greenwood plan. The hope is to channel reinvestment to those 18 blocks and span its economic, racial, land use and historical diversity from one end to the other.
For establishing such an ambitious goal and committing to the type of effort it will take to bring it to fruition, Key City has been named the Innovator in Real Estate as part of the annual Progress Awards bestowed by the Daily Journal.
Indeed, it will take a determined effort to carry the plan out. While Greenwood Avenue has some charming qualities about it, there are also less desirable aspects.
Some of the city’s finest homes, especially on the south end, sit on the street or its direct vicinity. Alas, a handful of unoccupied, boarded-up homes also share a Greenwood address. The sight of century-old homes now divided into multiple residential units by landlords seemingly more concerned with profits than preservation are common.
It will be a challenge to facilitate change, and that’s why Key City leadership views the initiative as a marathon rather than a sprint.
“Birth to full development will take about 10 years,’’ Key City board president Jake Lee said.
So in figurative terms, the Greenwood Initiative is a mere infant not even old enough to walk. Board member Dave Baron said that’s about to change.
“Now we are looking at taking the preliminary first steps,’’ he said. “Now it goes to building and refining community support.’’
Key City is trying to identify an executive director who can work in at least a part-time role to help drum up that support, but it is not waiting for that person to start the job. A meeting among key stakeholders and potential private investors was held last year to share information on the advantages of creating an Opportunity Zone meant to provide tax advantages to economically distressed communities.
Key City officials have also met with other leaders who have a vested interest in the area. In one meeting, Baron said a Kankakee city alderman asked: “What can be done to help the existing residents who are pillars of our community?”
It’s a valid inquiry, and Baron said these residents concerns must be heard and addressed. Lee is in agreement.
“We’re asking stakeholders for their vision of what the street can be,’’ he said.
One way to address these concerns is to show consistent improvement over time. Baron admits “our timeline must be a loose timeline,’’ the hope is to see a tangible example of positive change on each of the 18 blocks in the next decade.
Of course, change brings about something different, and the plan here would bring about a change in the housing market as multi-unit dwellings would become more plentiful as part of the initiative. Baron said an influx of “dense, urban housing’’ would be in many cases more affordable and thus more attractive for a potential buyer. These types of dwellings could be more common in the downtown area where Greenwood Avenue crosses Court Street.
But the initiative hardly has improved residential environment as its only aim. The future of commercial and retail development is part of the plan, as is the possibility of establishing a United Way “Strong Neighborhood House’’ in the area to provide a variety of youth and social services. Even cultural improvements such as an urban tree farm to be cared for by youths is on the drawing board.
Again, attracting community support holds the key. Opportunity Zone benefits, Enterprise Zone cost reductions, New Markets Tax Credits, TIF proceeds, and other city housing programs can help offset the cost of this revitalization plan, but ultimately private assistance is needed as well.
“I hope as people learn about the Greenwood initiative they get excited and think about ways to improve the street,’’ Lee said. “Kankakee can be a destination place to live, work and play. The sky is really the limit.’’