Antioch officials are taking a new approach to improving areas near the downtown with hopes of attracting investment.
With a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the village is poised to begin identifying and assessing underused land, blighted properties and former industrial sites within about a quarter-mile of the Metra commuter station.
The hope is to determine the type and extent of environmental issues that may exist at various properties and establish a road map of sorts to eventually address them. Included in the study area is an old industrial park east of downtown and north of Antioch High School that contains several active businesses and some vacant properties.
"It's close to the train station. It's close to downtown. It's close to schools. It's near a 160-acre sports park. To not consider that for redevelopment is pretty shortsighted," said Dustin Nilsen, Antioch's director of community development.
Nilsen applied for and secured the assessment grant for Antioch through the EPA's Brownfields Program.
As the former brownfield coordinator in Coralville, Iowa, Nilsen worked on a project involving a once-tainted site that was developed into a hotel and convention center.
Brownfields, according to the EPA, are properties where expansion, redevelopment or reuse can be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.
"That's the nature of this -- what are we dealing with?" Village Administrator Jim Keim said. "Why are some properties not being developed? We want economic development, and if there are environmental barriers to economic development, we should know what those are."
Examples of potential study sites include a former circuit board plant in the industrial area and the cleared former Pittman Pontiac on Main Street, across from village hall and the original 1892 grade school and current school building.
Reducing real or perceived environmental issues is expected to improve investment opportunities, according to the plan.
Much of that work will fall to an environmental contracting firm, with the village providing in-kind services as needed. Four firms are being considered, with a selection expected in coming weeks. The assessment project will take about two years.
"There are properties that have been basically abandoned because they have suspected environmental problems. I'm not a big government guy, but if the government doesn't step in, no one will," village Trustee George Sakas said.
The plan calls for an initial assessment of 15 properties to involve an exterior inspection and research of documents, land uses, and other records. That also will involve working with property owners, who would need to deal with environmental issues if they were to sell or invest in the property.
An assessment could show such issues may not exist or be less extensive than perceived, Nilsen said.
"We want to facilitate the reinvestment and here's a way we can do it," he added.
From the initial list, five properties will be selected for further study, including soil and groundwater testing. Any clean up would require more funding, and there are grants for that purpose, Nilsen said.
Sakas, the community development director for Schiller Park, said it's easy to overlook commercial properties, which pay more taxes than homeowners.
"We want to get them back on the tax rolls, and it isn't going to happen without taking advantage of the brownfield money that's out there," he said.
Nilsen described the grant program as "environmental stewardship meets economic development," with a goal of reactivating idle properties.
The plan also calls for the involvement of community organizations and the wide and frequent dissemination of information through open houses, public meetings and village website postings.
"A big component of this is education and outreach," Nilsen said.