It has been called an "eyesore" in the past. But Wheaton Park District officials say the old downtown Jewel site could become the recreation center on the north side of town many people have clamored for.
They also say a new facility could complement the old Hubble Middle School site, which lies just south of the property.
"If it made financial sense, I don't see how they could not both coexist," Commissioner Phil Luetkehans said. "It creates a synergy. The properties are right next to each other and it could alleviate some parking concerns."
Whether it makes financial sense or not remains to be seen. The park district recently was awarded a $2.4 million grant to buy the land. However, the price tag on the 1.45-acre site at 114 E. Willow Ave. stands at $3.25 million.
Additionally, it remains unclear how much it would cost to renovate the parking lot and the 20,000-square-foot building, which has stood vacant since the Jewel-Osco store left the location in February 2008.
Luetkehans said he would not decide whether to vote to accept the grant until he heard the final costs. However, he said he was leaning toward giving the OK.
"If done correctly, and if the dollars make sense, it could be a nice benefit for the park district and downtown," he said.
Executive Director Mike Benard said in an email that work to estimate renovation costs started last week as soon as park district staff heard about the grant.
Jewel-Osco officials would not comment other than to say they were aware of the park district's interest.
Board President Ray Morrill said a lot has changed since the park district submitted the grant application in November. In June, the Hubble site was sold to a developer who has indicated a strong interest in working with the park district to free up some recreational space.
Morrill said one of the reasons for the application was the uncertainty of Hubble.
"I am honored and pleased that we have been given it," Morrill said of the grant, one of 22 the Illinois Department of Natural Resources handed out to park districts across the state and one of just two given for acquisition purposes. "But now we need to take a look at whether the Jewel property holds the same value today as it did when we first applied for the grant."
Morrill said he was hesitant to turn down a state grant because it could affect the park district's credibility in the future. But finalizing the Hubble space remains his top priority and, like Luetkehans, he would withhold a final decision on the grant until more specific financial numbers become available.
"If the Jewel Food Store could become a reality and it's reasonable and feasible, and staff can convince me there is a need, then I'm open to listening to what they have to tell us and I'll make my decision based on that," Morrill said.
Although Wheaton Mayor Mike Gresk said he would have preferred another retail store, he said a parks facility downtown would help generate foot traffic.
"We were looking forward to having a commercial development there and get something on our tax rolls," he said. "But a park district facility would stimulate traffic down there and would get people to come into downtown Wheaton. We would certainly talk about it."