The bizarre saga of the former state mental health facility in Tinley Park has more twists and turns than athletes competing in diving or gymnastics.
The final 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 recreation complex on the 280-acre property northwest of Harlem Avenue and 183rd Street.
The Park District proposal blindsided Village officials like an unblocked blitz outside linebacker flattening a quarterback.
“We need to bring the property together as a city,” 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 delicate conflict between Tinley Parkers of different stripes feels like a fitting new chapter in a long history of intrigue and misfortune. Since the state closed the facility in 2012, the site has become an eyesore that attracts vandals, a tainted environmental nightmare, and a money pit that Illinois mindlessly wastes funds to secure.
It is also prime real estate in a highly desirable location near an Interstate 80 interchange.
“Buy land, they don’t do it anymore,” said Mark Twain.
Earlier this year, village officials believed they had reached an agreement with the Illinois Department of Central Management Services to finally transfer ownership of the land.
However, fate intervened to seize defeat from the jaws of victory. The deal required approval from the Illinois General Assembly, but no one introduced legislation that would have sealed the deal.
You can almost feel the fury and resentment of Village officials expressed in a timeline they posted on the Village’s website as they threw with all their might State Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Frankfort, under the bus.
“Early 2022: Senator Michael Hastings fails to introduce required legislation in the Illinois General Assembly, killing the sale and undoing 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 has cost the state and village millions of dollars in potential revenue, as well as countless future construction and service industry jobs.”
It was not the first time that a major deal to redevelop the property fell apart like a house of cards attacked with a leaf blower. In late 2019, Governor JB Pritzker halted 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 game kingpin who had longstanding business ties to a banking family whose financial involvement with ties to the crowd had helped sink a casino project in Rosemont years earlier.
“Oh what a tangled web we weave when we first practice deceiving,” wrote Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott.
Lawmakers allocated $15 million in 2020 to clean up the property. But in 2021, the money mysteriously disappeared. State Representative Tim Ozinga, R-Mokena, accused Blue Island of embezzling funds to repair streets.
The never-ending story of Tinley Park’s quest to do something, anything, with the former mental health center property feels like a soap opera. It’s full of drama but nothing major ever happens. Colorful characters move in and out of the scene but the plot stubbornly refuses to move forward.
Why has nothing happened with the property after 10 years? There should be a finished project now. Why is there nothing to show but decaying buildings?
There is no shortage of ideas for redeveloping the land. The Park District proposal shows wonderful uses, including ball diamonds, a domed soccer field, a stadium with a track, Metra commuter parking, and other wonderful amenities.
The tournaments could attract out-of-town visitors who would eagerly fill village coffers with tax revenue from increased business at hotels and restaurants, supporters say.
The village responded to the proposal with more cold water than you would find on a polar dip.
“We control the zoning there,” village manager Pat Carr said. What he meant was, “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.”
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In addition to the racino, other concepts have been floated for the property including residential and commercial developments, a golf course, and other entertainment uses such as a haunted house or paintball park.
None of these propositions matter because the state owns the land and ownership is 99% of the problem. Too many big egos seem to be involved to produce meaningful negotiations that would allow Tinley Park to take local control of the site.
A sad accompaniment to the main drama is that throughout this time Tinley Park ratepayers have barely had a 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 forward with plans to sell the land to a developer before abruptly halting those plans.
Village officials seem to be doing their best. They said they would invite the public to participate in the redevelopment if they ever obtained ownership of the land. For now, however, the village appears to be competing with another city tax agency over potential control of the site.
If this was a TV drama, confused viewers would have changed channels long ago. But that’s real life, and it’s sad that after all this time, so little real progress has been made in turning a huge liability into a valuable asset.
Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.
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