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OPINION: Doomed sports complex latest chapter in bizarre saga of Tinley Park Mental Health Center property

The SouthtownStar - 12/8/2022

Dec. 8—The bizarre saga of the state's former mental health center property in Tinley Park has more twists and turns than athletes competing in a diving or gymnastics meet.

The latest wrinkle pits the redundantly named Tinley Park-Park District against the village of Tinley Park. The Park District recently revealed ambitious plans to develop a recreational complex on the 280-acre property northwest of Harlem Avenue and 183rd Street.

The Park District's proposal blindsided village officials like an unblocked blitzing outside linebacker flattening a quarterback.

"We have to get the property together as a town," Mayor Michael Glotz said of the district's bid for the land. The village has been trying, separately, for years to acquire the site from the state.

The awkward conflict among Tinley Parkers of differing stripes feels like a fitting new chapter in a long tale of intrigue and woe. Since the state closed the facility in 2012, the site has become an eyesore that attracts vandals, a contaminated environmental nightmare and a money pit that Illinois stupidly wastes funds to secure.

It's also prime real estate in a highly desirable location near an Interstate 80 interchange.

"Buy land, they're not making it any more," Mark Twain said.

Earlier this year village officials thought they had reached a deal with the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, finally, to transfer ownership of the land.

However, fate intervened to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory. The agreement required approval by the Illinois General Assembly, but no one introduced legislation that would have sealed the deal.

You can almost feel the fury and resentment village officials expressed in a timeline they posted on the village website as they threw state Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Frankfort, under the bus with all their might.

"Early 2022: Sen. Michael Hastings fails to introduce the required legislation to the Illinois General Assembly, effectively killing the sale and negating months of hard work and compromise by and between the Village of Tinley Park and the State of Illinois," according to the village. "Hastings' inaction cost both the State and Village millions of dollars of potential revenue, as well as countless future construction and service industry jobs."

It wasn't the first time a major deal to redevelop the property collapsed like a house of cards attacked with a leaf blower. Gov. J.B. Pritzker in late 2019 pulled the plug on plans to build a harness racing track and casino on the property.

Pritzker put the kibosh on the "racino" deal after the Chicago Tribune revealed the developer was a video gaming kingpin who had long-standing business ties to a banking family whose financial involvement with mob ties helped sink a proposed Rosemont casino years earlier.

"Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive," Scottish author Sir Walter Scott famously wrote.

Lawmakers allocated $15 million in 2020 to clean up the property. But in 2021, the money mysteriously went missing. State Rep. Tim Ozinga, R-Mokena, accused Blue Island of swiping funds to fix streets.

The never-ending story of Tinley Park's quest to do something, anything, with the former mental health center property is like a soap opera. It's full of drama but nothing consequential ever happens. Colorful characters enter and exit the stage but the plot stubbornly refuses to advance.

Why has nothing happened with the property after 10 years? There should be a completed project by now. Why is there nothing to show except decaying buildings?

There's been no shortage of ideas about how to redevelop the land. The Park District proposal shows marvelous uses, including ball fields, a domed soccer field, a stadium with a track, parking for Metra commuters and other wonderful amenities.

Tournaments could attract out-of-town visitors who would eagerly stuff village coffers with tax revenues from increased business at hotels and restaurants, proponents say.

The village responded to the proposal with more cold water than you'd find at a polar plunge.

"We control the zoning there," village manager Pat Carr said. By which he meant, "The land is not currently zoned for recreation, the village would never allow rezoning for such purposes and your ideas will never see the light of day."

In addition to the racino, other concepts tossed around for the property have included residential and commercial developments, a golf course and other entertainment uses such as a haunted house or paintball park.

None of these proposals matter because the state owns the land and possession is 99% of the problem. Too many big egos appear to be involved to ever produce meaningful negotiations that would result in Tinley Park ever gaining local control over the site.

A sad sidebar to the main drama is that for all this time, Tinley Park taxpayers have barely had any chance to say how they would like to see the property redeveloped. No one asked residents what they thought of the racino idea before the state moved ahead with plans to sell the land to a developer before it abruptly halted those plans.

Village officials seem to be doing their best. They have said they will invite public input about redevelopment if they ever get ownership of the land. For now, however, the village appears to be in competition with another taxing body in town over potential control of the site.

If this were a television drama, confused viewers would have long ago switched channels. But it's real life, and it's sad that after all this time so little actual progress has been made toward transforming a huge liability into a valuable asset.

Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.


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