Take a stroll along South Main Street in Hillsboro and you’ll likely wander across Monarch Park; a not-so-secret garden of wildflowers that adds a spot of much needed cheer and optimism to a space that only a year ago was a dreary eyesore in the sleepy neighborhood. The city’s newest public park replaces an abandoned, dilapidated home, at 1116 South Main Street, that had long since fallen into ruin and decay, casting a bleak shadow over its neighbors, as well as posing a health and safety risk.
“When I first ran for office, and was walking doors, one of the largest concerns residents had was parks - specifically lack of access due to the locations and the lack of infrastructure to reach the city’s parks,” said Michael Murphy, commissioner of Public Health and Safety for the City of Hillsboro. “Two of Hillsboro City Council’s driving goals are to make Hillsboro walkable and to revitalize the city. Monarch Park meets both of those goals. With a very minimal time and small monetary investment on the city’s end, we were able to transform a derelict property into a beautiful and usable space for the community.”
Monarch Park was completed at the end of August, and is not a park in the traditional sense but rather a quiet sanctuary where walkers can stop for a respite, readers can delve into a world of their own and children can happily and safely ride their bikes up and down the mulched walking paths. Commissioner Murphy has long held a dream of returning neglected properties to the public he serves. Throughout his time in office, Murphy has been committed to beautifying the city and tearing down deteriorating structures.
“Over the course of the last five years we have seen the demolition of (I believe) 43 derelict structures. The vast majority of these properties have stayed in the hands of private individuals or have been sold, creating revenue for the city,” Commissioner Murphy explained. “In my estimation, we have been wildly successful and a lot of that success is due to the Hillsboro Police Department. Officer Gary Satterlee has been instrumental in the city being able to absorb these properties.”
Before the city can demolish a structure they must first absorb the property back into the municipality. This can happen in a number of ways. The easiest is when owners deed the abandoned property to the city.
In some cases, the taxes have been purchased by an outside company or there is an outstanding health and human services lien on the property - the state has a claim against the estate of the owner following their death. These cases require the city to initiate court proceedings to absorb the property, which is where Hillsboro Police Department and Officer Satterlee step in to help.
“It is a tedious and overwhelming process,” Murphy explained. “As a municipality, as long as there is an intent to demolish the lien can be forgiven and the city is able to then step in and purchase the taxes. Once the legal hurdles are cleared the city is able to demolish the property. I think we have dealt with between eight and ten properties that have had Health and Human Services liens, and Gary has really become a master at getting us through this process successfully. His knowledge is unmatched. He has been an outstanding resource for the community, for the council and for myself.”
These vacant properties have spillover effects that negatively impact neighboring properties and the community as a whole, including reduced property values, increased crime, increased risk to public health and welfare and even increased costs for municipal governments. The city’s ultimate goal is to get as many of these properties back on the tax roll as quickly as possible. However, properties similar to the one on South Main Street attract little interest from buyers.
“The property on South Main had a Health and Human Services lien on it in excess of $200,000. The house on the site has been in disrepair for over a decade and probably wasn’t even worth $20. We were able to have the lien forgiven and see the structure demolished, but with no potential buyers in sight we weren’t entirely sure where to go from there.”
The idea of turning the now vacant lot into a public space grew from a conversation that occurred within City Hall. Commissioner Murphy had read an article about neglected properties that had been turned into wildflower parks in other countries, and was intrigued by the idea. He mentioned the idea to Jonathan Weyer, community and economic planner and Parks and Recreation Supervisor Jim May; both men were enthusiastic about creating similar public spaces in Hillsboro.
Murphy was quick to deflect credit for the park, stating that returning the area to the community wouldn’t have happened without fellow commissioners, Katie Duncan, Don Downs and Daniel Robbins, along with former mayor Brian Sullivan, and their courage to take on issues like this. He went on to explain that several factions of the city’s government teamed up to bring Monarch Park into fruition.
Hillsboro Police Department and the city’s attorney Kit Hantla were largely responsible for going through the court proceedings for the demolition of the property. The Street and Public Works Department was responsible for tearing the deteriorating house down, and the Parks and Recreation Department put in around three days of manual labor to build the new park. Coach Rich Stewart used donated timbers and mulch made by the city to build a walking path, and took on the long-term responsibility of maintaining the park.
Keeping city expenses down is always a concern for the commissioners, but the pressure not to incur unnecessary expenditures is especially prevalent with the city’s revenue down - a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. With this in mind, it was of utmost importance that the Monarch Park project resulted in minimal costs to the city. A feat that was easier than anticipated thanks to donations from individual community members.
From the beginning stages, John Robison provided vital assistance and insights needed to birth the idea, including guidance on what would grow best in the area - Zinnias, a tough, hearty flower with a good mix of color and sunflowers. Justin and Lisa Hartline donated the timber Coach Stewart used to construct the walking path. An anonymous resident donated a little over $200 in seeds, and the city invested around $100 in treated lumber to build a bench. Through this collaborative effort a dangerous and depressing blight in the neighborhood is now a warm and inviting space for the community.
“Speaking for myself, I think that the concept of responsibility has disappeared from societal conversation. As a country we speak more about what our rights are than what our responsibility is, as citizens,” Murphy said. “The city has to take responsibility for these dangerous structures and provide some kind of an answer. Whether that is getting the property back on the tax rolls or creating more spaces for public use. As residents it’s our responsibility to maintain these spaces, to keep them clean and take care of them. As a community it is our responsibility to be engaged. To come together and take an active stance in creating the kind of city that not only we want to live in but that our future generations will want to live in as well.”
It is this kind of hands-on collaboration between the community and their elected officials that City Planner Weyer hopes to inspire through Hillsboro 2030, the proposed strategic plan for the city.
While his role has expanded, Weyer was originally hired on the basis of writing the strategic plan which will be used to help guide the city towards its vision for the future. The plan is not a concrete, step-by-step list of directions but a fluid guidepost to help the community execute its long term goals.
“My hope is that Hillsboro 2030 will be an instrumental tool in ensuring that Hillsboro continues to thrive beyond the current generation of leaders,” Weyer explained. “It is meant to be a guide for decision making rather than an authoritative document.”
The 64-page plan covers projects, goals and objectives for the next ten years. It is organized into a tier system, with ten projects or goals listed in each tier. Tier one focuses on critical projects that must begin immediately, tier two focuses on projects that need to begin in the next three years, tier three focuses on needed projects that should begin in the next five years and tier four covers projects that can be undertaken as time allows.
Monarch Park falls into tier four, which covers projects that will lead the community of Hillsboro towards its goal of developing a healthy, outdoor lifestyle. The city hopes to accomplish this goal by turning small, city owned, lot properties into public green spaces that are easy to take down and sell when needed.
“Monarch Park is the first property that has been rehabbed into something else and I am really proud of it,” Commissioner Murphy said, with sentiment. “Throughout my time in office, my goal has been to live up to the words, ‘we weren’t just marking time, we made a difference.’ Monarch Park is a fantastic example of the differences we can make when the city and the community work in tandem.”
Hillsboro 2030 can be viewed online at www.hillsboroillinois.net, click on the Hillsboro 2030 link. The plan is currently up for public review and comments may be sent to Weyer via email at Jonathan.Weyer@hillsboroillinois.net.