There's signs of life in Marion's dormant STAR Bonds project, or at least in the city's search for new development.
The city council is expected to name Doug Bradley, lead partner in Marion Heights LLC, as the STAR Bonds District's new master developer. He would take the place of Bruce Holland of Holland Construction who backed out a while ago. Saturday's Southern Illinoisan has part of the story.
The council will make the selection Monday night at a special meeting set for 5 p.m. at Marion City Hall. The Marion city clerk made the announcement of the special meeting at the close of business Thursday.
Bradley's group has been responsible for The Hill development on the northwest side of the Interstate 57 and Morgan Avenue, and had started focusing on the northeast side after the city and state extended Morgan Avenue across the interstate and made a limited interchange at the crossing.
When Bruce Holland approached the city with the STAR Bonds District proposal back in 2010 much of Marion Heights LLC's tracts on both sides of the interstate were swept up in the larger project. Now, Bradley has a retailer with plans for a 50,000 sq. ft. store looking to build behind Menards on the west side, but first, he needs the property to be taken out of the STAR Bonds District so the developers can benefit from the earlier tax increment financing (TIF) district first created for The Hill.
Under state law, developers can use either STAR Bonds or TIF, but not both.
Prior to the establishment of that TIF district the area on the northwest consisted of abandoned mine lands and strip pits, some dating back to the 1930s. The first elements of The Hill opened in 2003 and includes Fairfield Inn, South Pointe Bank (now MidCountry Bank), Rent One Park, Holiday Inn Express and Menards up on top, and additional restaurants and offices down below on 17th Street.
The STAR Bonds District can't be activated by the state until a master developer lands at minimum a major destination retailer and a major entertainment user such as a theme park to anchor the development. They have to then submit a master plan showing at least $100 million in investments that would generate at least $100 million in annual sales taxes as well as the creation of a minimum of 500 jobs.
With Holland out and no one stepping up, Marion Heights LLC wants to move forward at least on some of the smaller projects that have been circling their land. Since at least 2007 they have had plans for a strip center with retail stores behind Menards that would face the interstate to the east. Now, according to City Hall, at least an anchor store, or a standalone store, wants to call the Hub of the Universe home.
One of the delays in the STAR Bonds development according to statements made by both Marion Mayor Robert L. Butler and state Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, over the last few years has been the ongoing road construction projects totaling more than $100 million.
Both have said a major tenant interested in coming to Marion had wanted to wait until the construction was over. Although the Exit 54 rebuild is now finished, work continues on the Route 13 bypass over the Burlington-Northern and the widening of Route 13 to six lanes between Rt. 148 and Crab Orchard Lake. However, much closer to the STAR Bonds District, the work has finally begun on the widening of Morgan Avenue to four lanes, the addition of a second overpass and the expansion of the exit to a full interchange with access to the south.
Monday's agenda calls on the council to first name a new master developer, then get the master developer's approval for amending the boundaries of the STAR Bonds District, and finally adopting the amendment changing the boundaries.
While these moves would smooth the way for the new retailer, and possibly a whole strip mall it doesn't address the larger issue of what will happen to the STAR Bonds District that's gone without any progress for at least two years now.
Here's a few questions that hopefully will be answered Monday, but probably won't.
1. While the naming of a new master developer is necessary in order to the smaller project to proceed, does Marion Heights LLC have plans to develop the entire STAR Bonds District, or a larger partner in the background that can move the project forward? In other words, is this just a temporary move to get the smaller project off the ground? (Not that there is anything wrong with that!)
2. While we're shifting boundaries of the STAR Bonds District will there be any movement to expand the district, particularly south of Morgan Avenue, on the east side of the interstate?
Over the last few years The Hill developers have been aggressively adding to their property portfolio, going as far as buying from the bank the mortgage of one mobile home operator. With the operator behind in payments they filed for foreclosure and finally received full title to the 15 lots this past Tuesday on Sept. 9.
The area between Morgan Avenue and Route 13 consists of the old Morgan Heights development platted a century ago that's two blocks deep and consisting mostly of tiny lots just 50' x 150' with only some of the streets actually paved and some never built out at all. The developers have been targeting the area between Morgan and Princeton Avenue, the only east-west street between Route 13 and Morgan. It's an area that desperately needs to be re-platted and designed for modern developments.
The orange lots show what they've had for a few years and the pink color what they just completely acquired this past week. The red lands to the north represents their original purchase on the east side of the interstate. There's still about 13 or 14 property owners that represent the remaining tracts between Princeton and Morgan, Carbon and the interstate.
Only two or three of the tracts are publicly available for sale at the present time, it would be difficult to see this area redeveloping up to its potential without further consolidation.
UPDATE 1 - The council did took action as expected. However, only 5 acres out of the 43-acre tract behind Menards was removed. No public discussion was made as to the name of the store.