Wheaton continues to scale back downtown projects

Even as they continue to scale back downtown improvements first discussed more than four years ago, the Wheaton City Council is being asked to consider issuing bonds and find new revenue to pay for the pricey projects.

Earlier this summer, the council was presented with good, better and best options for the work, with the good option totaling $47 million and the best amounting to more than $88 million. The proposed work includes festival streets, a new French Market structure, creation of a new Central Park just south of the railroad tracks and other improvements.

The city staff determined, however, that even the good option was too aggressive and have since worked to shrink the proposed project area and cut costs.

On Monday, City Manager Mike Dzugan proposed three options at the good level. The first, which was the one the city staff ultimately recommended, is a four-year project that amounts to $23.8 million, with $1 million spent on the park and $1.5 million allotted to the French Market.

About $17.6 million could be funded with tax increment financing dollars, and city staff members proposed the remaining cost be covered by a $5 million, 10-year bond issue and $1.2 million from the city's capital projects fund. In a TIF district, as redevelopment boosts property values, the extra tax revenue that otherwise would go to schools and others taxing bodies goes into improvements to the area.

However, Dzugan warned there are other capital projects in the city that need to be addressed in the next five years - the details of which will be presented to the council in the coming weeks ­- and therefore recommended a 0.25 percentage point local sales tax increase. That would take the sales tax in Wheaton up to 8.25 percent.

The second and third options increased the construction time to five years and upped costs to $31 million and $36.6 million, respectively. Non-TIF-related costs equaled $10.4 million for the second option and $11 million for the third.

While the area where the work would take place expanded with each option, staff members proposed the first year of each one start with work on Front Street. The council came to a consensus Monday to move ahead with hiring a civil engineer and further exploring the costs and details for the Front Street work.

But there was debate about ways the first and second options could be merged and which projects should continue to be scaled back or even eliminated.

Councilwoman Suzanne Fitch said she would like to eliminate the French Market project altogether, but other council members said they thought it had great potential to draw in foot traffic and spur development south of the tracks.

There were also concerns about making the work on the south side of the tracks a higher priority; ensuring that the work is high-quality but also done within a reasonable price range; and working to keep added taxes a last resort.

Although details continue to be worked out, construction could potentially begin as early as next year.

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