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Wednesday, May 24, 2006 02:32 pm

South Town rising

Some property owners are skeptical about redevelopment plans

One of the largest impediments to growth in Old South Town neighborhood, as some business owners — some of whom live in the area — joke, is that that the area “is one block into the ghetto.” According the city of Springfield’s consolidated plan, the neighborhood “shows signs of advanced dilapidation, obsolescence, deterioration, structures below minimum code standards, excessive vacancies, [and] deleterious land use.” Nevertheless, the report says, the area around the intersection at 11th Street and South Grand Avenue “is crucial in connecting the east side to downtown.” On May 2, the Springfield City Council passed an ordinance designating Old South a housing and urban redevelopment area. That move should help the city tap block-grant money from the U.S. Department of the Housing and Urban Development, says Mike Farmer, the city’s planning and economic-development director. The city set aside $445,000 worth of grants for the first phase of the project. Landlords may also borrow money from the city to make improvements to their buildings. Someday, Farmer says, the redevelopment could stretch as far east as Dirksen Parkway. By concentrating on improving the infrastructure, the city hopes to attract more private investment, Farmer says. Last fall, city officials unveiled plans to reverse blight by redeveloping the area, which was once a commercial hub. Already the city has purchased and demolished several dilapidated buildings along the main strip on South Grand. Next, plans call for the restoration of building façades and the Varsity Theatre marquee — one of the oldest in the state — as well as the construction of a 40-space lot, which is also under way. It’s a good start, area proprietors say, but much more needs to be done if the area is going to thrive. By most accounts, Jerry Nelson, owner of Café Kanichi-Wa, has the most successful business right now. He’s skeptical as to whether the city’s vision for Old South Town can be brought to fruition. “The only thing we’re going to get out of that is a parking lot,” says Nelson, who acknowledges that, once the lot is complete, he’ll reap much of the benefit from the added parking spaces. However, he has other concerns. “We could use another neighborhood police officer. I’d like to see the neighborhood come up because I own a business here, but we need more police presence,” he says. Nelson also wishes that Springfield cops would do more to crack down on prostitution by enforcing a law that limits the travel of recidivist prostitutes, saying he frequently sees one notorious streetwalker roaming the neighborhood. Skank Skates owner George Sinclair is more worried about skyrocketing property taxes should the Old South Town redevelopment move too quickly, though he gives a “shout-out to Mayor [Tim] Davlin” for getting the ball rolling on the project. Still, Sinclair, who has had his share of run-ins with the city, as evidenced by his two three-ring binders full of various citations, says: “I’m very happy the project is moving forward — it’s 15 years past due, but that’s how things go.”
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