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Vermilion officials laying groundwork for more downtown development

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VERMILION — City officials are laying the groundwork to bring more development to the historic downtown district.

For years, “there was some sentiment” among some City Council members and the public to pave over an empty lot at the southeast corner of Liberty Avenue and Grand Street, Mayor Jim Forthofer said.

But last week at a meeting of Council’s Streets, Buildings and Grounds Committee, Forthofer proposed an alternative: re-surveying the lot and securing for the city a permanent easement to build an alleyway to connect it to a municipal parking lot to the south.

Called the “Fulper lot” after a previous owner, it was the site of a gas station under several different owners over decades. The station was vacated and razed a few years ago, and the city acquired it in 2016. In 2017, the site was cleared by the Environmental Protection Agency and was appraised in April for $133,000, Forthofer said.

The parcel is actually two lots. Forthofer’s proposal to have it re-surveyed would join the two lots to sell it as one piece to a developer, while securing an approximately 15- to 20-foot-wide alleyway that would connect Liberty Avenue adjacent to the old movie theater, currently the site of The Artseen, a small gallery, to the municipal lot that runs north of the railroad tracks between Main and Grand streets.

The Fulper lot is often used as overflow parking during summer or occasional events, such as the annual Woollybear festival. While residents have complained of a lack of parking downtown in the past, Forthofer said there are 346 parking spaces in downtown, including 54 in the municipal parking lot that runs behind several buildings that face Liberty Avenue.

“Listen, for things like the Fish Festival and Third Thursdays, there’s never going to be enough parking for that. But for everyday life in Vermilion, there is plenty of parking,” he said. “I was asking the Council for consensus to proceed with exploring developing it. I’m working with the city engineer on the surveying already, and then it’s really a matter of courting a partner.”

The municipal lot — also known as the Grand Division parking lot — previously was privately owned and users had to pay a toll. The city purchased it during previous Mayor Eileen Bulan’s administration. Some committee members, though, said many visitors aren’t aware of it.

To that end, Forthofer said the city plans to redo the landscaping at both entrances to the lot and upgrade signs to indicate its availability.

Marilou Suszko, executive director of Main Street Vermilion, said maintaining the city’s walkability is vital.

“Parking lots are not attractive to small towns. Ours is a lake and a preserved historic downtown, that is what we prefer to have. But a parking lot itself is not an attraction,” she said.

Contact Rini Jeffers at rinijeffers@gmail.com.
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