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Highland Park examines its city-owned property

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Highland Park's City Council is taking a hard look at city-owned properties including a community center once donated for preservation and the senior center nestled on the lakefront.

The conversation is expected to continue in the next two months. Before any property is sold, there will be an analysis with an eye toward preventing the displacement of important community services, according to Mayor Nancy Rotering.

"The thesis in all of this has been – how do we best meet the needs of our community in the most cost-effective way?" Rotering said.

One city-owned property – the Highland Park Theater – will be sold with no restrictions after multiple plans to reopen it fizzled out.

The theater could be joined by other properties in the year ahead, depending on the outcome of the council's ongoing assessment of the buildings' needs, cost, usage, restrictions and value, officials have said.

Rotering said there could be cheaper and better locations to offer youth and senior services.

Council member David Naftzger, meanwhile, has pointed to the Community House, located at 1991 Sheridan Road, as an intriguing property to consider selling.

With an estimated market value of $2.3 million, according to recent city estimates, selling the Community House could help with long-term needs like rising pension costs, Naftzger said.

Unlike the senior center and youth center, the Community House does not offer "core services," Naftzger said, but is mostly used as a gathering place for events.

"It's a high-value asset that's close to the central business district," Naftzger said. "It's one that used, but doesn't have a huge volume of users."

The suggestion of selling the Community House property has riled some.

Mike Belsky, the former mayor, has served on the board of directors for the Highland Park Community Center, the nonprofit that manages the Community House.

He called the City Council's direction misguided.

"I think it's similar to the (Highland Park Theater)," Belsky said. "They're trying to sell off cultural assets and that would diminish the quality of life in Highland Park."

The Community House was effectively donated to the city by the Highland Park Woman's Club in 1994, according to city documents.

The Highland Park Community Center, the nonprofit that operates and maintains the building under the agreement, pays the city $12,500 per year on a $500,000 loan that was part of the agreement, according to city documents.

By the end of the current agreement in 2018, the nonprofit will still owe about $260,000, said city Finance Director Nikki Larson.

Once the full loan is paid off, the city would convey the property to the Community Center, according to the terms in the 1994 real estate contract.

Steve Mandel, a Lake County board member who served on the Highland Park City Council when the Community House was given to the city, said the property should not be considered for sale or development.

"(The Highland Park Woman's Club) gave it to the community to be preserved," said Mandel, whose wife, Linda Mandel, serves as co-chair of the Community Center's board of directors.

The Community House is a local landmark, a designation given by the city.

Councilman Tony Blumberg expressed reluctance at the idea of city selling the Community House and disrupting the arrangement with the Community Center nonprofit that's been moving toward ownership of the property.

"I would hate to pull that out from them when they've been working hard to that end," Blumberg said.

But considering the city's long-term pension funding needs, it deserves a closer look, Naftzger said.

"All of them present a challenge, but again, I ask the question: If these properties were on the market today, would we buy them and use them in the same way?" Naftzger said. "If the answer is no, we have the responsibility to revisit them."

It's still early in the conversation, Rotering said.

The city has yet to engage other entities – like the Community Center board of directors -- in a conversation, she said.

First, the City Council needs more data on all of the city-owned properties for a more comprehensive view.

"At the end of the day, you can say 'I'm going to sell a building,'" Rotering said. "But where are you going to put the people? Where are you going to offer the services?"

Unlike the Community House, the youth and senior centers represent consistent financial obligations to the city.

Annually, the Senior Center costs the city about $15,000 to maintain, according to information recently presented to the City Council, and has $286,000 in building needs identified for the city's five-year capital improvement plan.

But the property is also restricted by conservation easements and selling it would require Illinois Department of Natural Resources approval, said Public Works Director Ramesh Kanapareddy.

Some seniors who use the center frequently are fiercely loyal to the scenic location and, in public meetings, have decried the idea of moving it.

But there are also many in the community, Rotering said, who can't easily access the senior center's services because of its limited parking and inconvenient location.

Likewise, the numbers of those who use the Youth Center, located in a renovated former fire station on Green Bay Road, have declined, while the need for costly building repairs have risen, the mayor said.

That property costs about $10,000 a year to maintain and has $350,000 worth of capital improvement needs in the next five years, Kanapareddy said. It's also a local landmark building.

gtrotter@tribune.com | Twitter: @NorthShoreTrib


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