“Development’s always a two-edged sword,” says Minooka Village President Ric Offerman. He’s referring to the fact that the population of Minooka, at the crossroads of Kendall, Grundy and Will Counties, has grown by 4,000% during his lifetime there, but that he can understand why people have flocked to the community in the past couple of decades. “I’ve seen a great amount of growth, an awful lot of good farmland that is now multiple houses, but this is a wonderful area to live and I can’t blame anybody for wanting to move here.”
The name Minooka actually means “contentment” and “good land” in the Potawatomi language of the people who called it home prior to written historical records.
Under Village President Offerman’s leadership, Minooka is showing us what great things can be reflected in the second side of the development sword through our recent partnership to reclaim the grounds of an excavation company near the center of town and turn it back into open space that will extend an adjoining public park. Often when we think of land and the urgency to protect it, we invoke the “when it’s gone, it’s gone” mantra. While it’s true that land once developed may never be returned to its original state, this reclamation story in Minooka is a perfect example of how it’s never too late to reimagine the future of a piece of land, and to give it back to nature and the community.
Watch the video below to hear more from Village President Offerman and Chairman of Parks Terry Houchens, or read on!
Veterans Memorial Park sits at the corner of Mondamin and Wabena Avenue in the heart of Minooka, between Wabena Avenue and railroad tracks, and serves as a gathering place for ceremonies, parades and community happenings throughout the year. The end of the park that is closest to the downtown area has stone memorials to Minooka’s brave veterans who have served in our nation’s wars, as well as a picnic shelter and inviting seating areas. Historically, a train depot sat on this spot, which come to think of it makes this park a double reclamation story! As the park extends along the railroad tracks, a winding path meanders among a very pleasant grove of trees, doubling back on itself to return to the memorial. It’s not a large park by any means, but surprisingly peaceful being so close to downtown. At the far end of the grove is a green space that Chairman of Parks Terry Houchens said could be used for outdoor concerts, or it looked like a perfect place for a mean game of frisbee or a nap in the sunshine to me!
The Village of Minooka’s Veterans Memorial Park
The pleasantness of this vista, with its airy pine trees, scampering squirrels and inviting gentle hills comes to a grinding halt as your eye travels beyond the park’s current borders to the excavator’s yard next door. Fans of the NBC hit show Parks and Recreation may recall one of the show’s first story lines, the Pawnee Parks Department’s crusade to turn a pit in the center of their town into a public park. The industrial property next to Minooka’s Veterans Memorial Park may not be a hole in the ground, but it takes a lot of imagination to see the park that it’s yearning to be. A stark white fence largely fails in its attempts to hide some of the piles of machine parts, concrete chunks, and discarded metal strewn about the gravel lot, and as I walked the yard, that pit storyline is all I could think of.
But, true to the even-tempered, reasonable nature you pick up on immediately when you meet him, Village President Offerman noted that the site and the activities it has been home base for had their time and place in helping the town grow and prosper. “When this business first developed, it had a real need. They did much of the excavating for the field tiles around here and the houses as the neighborhood grew.” He shared that he himself had in fact worked for the company, albeit under different ownership, decades ago. This comment was very much in keeping with The Conservation Foundation’s guiding principle of being a “reasoned voice”. Development is not the enemy. People need houses, roads, schools and food, and the discarded agricultural drainage tiles, old fire hydrants, street signs and rebar piled on the site have served those needs. Now that their time has come and gone, however, new possibilities exist!!! “It’s just a wonderful thing now that we can beautify it and change it back,” Offerman said.
Much to their credit and the benefit of Minooka residents, Ric Offerman, Terry Houchens, and the rest of the Village and Park boards can see beyond what exists today, and have made a commitment to be aggressive in developing open space and parks to improve the health and quality of life in their community. In fact, Minooka has set a goal to have 20% open space in the Village! When this property went up for sale, they knew right away they wanted to acquire it to extend Veterans Memorial Park.
But, having just vigorously exercised their commitment to integrating nature into the community life of Minooka with the purchase and creation of Aux Sable Springs Park, finding the funds for this purchase was proving to be an insurmountable challenge. Terry, an outdoor enthusiast and biologist, was familiar with The Conservation Foundation, as was Ryan Anderson from Minooka’s Public Works Department, and they reached out to see if there might be a way to accomplish this preservation project together.
Because of the support of our members and donors, we were able to come in, purchase the property on behalf of the Village of Minooka, and we’ll hold onto it until they are able to gather grants and other funding to purchase it from us. This is what is known as a Buy and Hold method of preserving land. As a private organization, we have the unique flexibility to be able to fill this role as an intermediate owner, a bridge between the seller and the public agency wishing to purchase a piece of land. We have done this many times with many municipalities, park districts and forest preserve districts throughout the region, resulting in public parks and natural areas that may otherwise have fallen to other uses.
As for this one acre in Minooka, it’s proof that with a little bit of vision and a lot of determination, no property is ever too small or too far gone to be saved. “What do I envision here?” pondered Terry Houchens. “I don’t know. I know there will be trees going in! I could see a picnic shelter, maybe a railroad walk from downtown all the way down to the edge of town.” As I followed his Chairman of Parks’ gaze down the length of the property, I could see the excitement and possibilities flitting through his mind. “Even if it sits empty for awhile, to me that’s fine,” he added. “It’s still providing habitat for wildlife. The possibilities are endless, but one thing I know is they don’t exist if we don’t own it. And that’s where The Conservation Foundation comes in.”
It will take some time to clean up, plan for and bring the Veterans Memorial Park extension to life, but this gravel lot-turned-park will undoubtedly be a wonderful amenity and gathering place for the Village of Minooka. “Those who develop land have a skill in looking at an open space and envisioning the homes, buildings, streets and parking lots that could be built there. I commend the Village’s ability and commitment to see the opposite: what beautiful park land could be crafted from an old industrial site,” said Dan Lobbes, The Conservation Foundation’s Director of Land Preservation who saw this project through.
We are proud to have partnered with the Village of Minooka on this unique acquisition, and applaud them for their vision and foresight in reclaiming this acre for nature and the enjoyment of all Minooka residents and visitors! “You hope,” expressed Village President Offerman, “that any time you make a move like this, any move for the Village, that it helps a great amount of people, and I think this will help not only the looks of the town but it will help all of the residents in the area.”
How do supporters of The Conservation Foundation #thanknature?
By helping our partners reclaim it!
Many thanks to Lauren Offerman and Michele Houchens of the Three Rivers Public Library for sharing their vast knowledge of Minooka and its history, and to the Three Rivers Public Library Local History Collection for the use of the historic photos in this story.
Written by Jill Johnson, Communications Manager