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updated: 3/19/2014 7:18 PM

With community center plan defeated by voters, demolition next for Brainerd building

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  • Video: Joe Bean on the referendum

  • Members of the Brainerd opposition group, Joe Bean, left, and Vera and Tom Butkovich, all of Libertyville, discuss why voters rejected a proposed tax hike to save the Brainerd building.

       Members of the Brainerd opposition group, Joe Bean, left, and Vera and Tom Butkovich, all of Libertyville, discuss why voters rejected a proposed tax hike to save the Brainerd building.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • A sign on a car of a member of the Brainerd opposition group. A ballot question to allow Libertyville to borrow up to $11.5 million to be repaid by a property tax hike was crushed Tuesday.

       A sign on a car of a member of the Brainerd opposition group. A ballot question to allow Libertyville to borrow up to $11.5 million to be repaid by a property tax hike was crushed Tuesday.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

 
 

When a group of passionate community members wanted to continue the uphill battle to try to save the former Libertyville High School by converting it to a community center, the building owner agreed to defer lease payments to provide more time.

But that chance expired with a crushing defeat Tuesday of what would have resulted in a tax hike to pay for the project. Demolition is next for two sentimental landmarks: the nearly century-old Brainerd building, which was attended by generations of residents, and the adjoining Jackson Gym, which was considered a premier venue of its time.

"Those buildings don't serve a need the district has," said Prentiss Lea, superintendent of Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128. "Our need is green space."

Lea said Brainerd Community Center Inc. has shown "great passion and commitment to the project," and the district has been honored to work with the group. But time has run out.

"Moving forward, the Brainerd building and Jackson Gym will be demolished," he said.

The demise of the local landmarks is not imminent but there is no timetable. The first action is to hire an expert to determine the amount and location of asbestos contained in the buildings and the cost to remove it. Whether that will be a separate contract or be done as part of demolition is to be determined.

"It will be a bit of an extended process to move forward," Lea said.

At the same time, the district will decide how best to utilize the property for tennis courts or other athletic facilities and parking. A portion of the site will be made available for some type of historical remembrance of the facilities, he added.

During the past three years, District 128 put its plans to remove the buildings for athletic fields and parking improvements on hold and stayed out of the spotlight.

Instead, the disposition of the local landmarks, which in 2008 were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, played out between the village and Brainerd Community Center Inc. The village leased the school and gym from District 128 and subleased them to the Brainerd group.

After private fundraising came nowhere close to funding the plan, the measure was put to a public vote for a conclusive make-or-break decision.

The resulting 4,086-to-881 defeat was so lopsided those on either side of the question to authorize the village to borrow $11.5 million to fund the project were surprised.

"The dollar amount was too much for people to swallow," said Mayor Terry Weppler, who noted taxpayers also would have been responsible for any operating shortfalls at the center.

Whether voters were swayed by the literature and websites is hard to say. But the turnout of nearly 34 percent was more than double that of the 14 percent in Lake County, showing a comparatively good deal of local interest as primary elections go.

"I think people voted their pocketbooks on this one. This issue was pursued for seven years, and people just got tired and said, `Enough already,'" said Joe Bean, who organized the itsanobrainerd.com opposition group.

While a positive vote would have authorized the village to issue bonds, it was not required to do so. Weppler said during town-hall meetings on Brainerd proposal that more detailed study would have been needed, a scenario that would have resulted in some sticky village board debate.

Instead, the village now has two options: pay off the back rent of $404,000 or pay a portion of the demolition and asbestos abatement costs. The village has until Aug. 1 to notify the district it wants out of the lease, and the first lease payment is due Dec. 1.

"It depends what option is better for us," Weppler said. "It'll take awhile for us to get it all together to determine what our costs will be."

Meanwhile, the Brainerd group likely will end its seven-year mission.

"We're satisfied we presented the opportunity and we're satisfied we got a very clear answer," said John Snow, a spokesman for the group.

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