Slowik: Lost potential of state’s Tinley Park property is a scary thought

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I picture a scary scenario involving the former Tinley Park Mental Health Center property.

Others imagine frightening experiences, too. It’s a spooky-looking place, like something you’d see in “The Walking Dead.”

One local entrepreneur wanted to rent the place this past Halloween, I was told. He wanted to hire a bunch of people to wear makeup and dress as zombies. He wanted to charge admission for people to ride through the 280-acre property, state Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Tinley Park, told me Tuesday.

“It would be perfect for a zombie apocalypse,” Hastings said.

Unfortunately, other uses were scheduled for the site at the time and the facility was unavailable for hayrides through a zombie wasteland, Hastings said. Law enforcement and military personnel frequently use the property for training exercises.

Urban explorers have published videos online of excursions through the facility.

“It’s pretty … creepy,” one voyeur narrated in a video. “I feel like I’m in ‘The Blair Witch Project.'”

A state audit found that medical records containing confidential information about patients were left behind when the state closed the facility in 2012. Debris scattered in vacant buildings left one trespasser feeling like he was witnessing the end of the world.

“This is what it would look like, I think,” the narrator said in the 2012 video. “This place is just sitting here doing nothing. I can’t believe they didn’t at least put a Walmart up.”

A more recent video features drone footage and teases viewers with footage of the “abandoned insane asylum in Tinley Park.” The slick production includes dramatic music that heightens suspense surrounding the eerie scenes of desolation.

I imagine a different type of nightmare scenario involving the property. Instead of zombies, I picture the land being swallowed by red tape, like the fast-growing vines in “Stranger Things.” It’s not the dead I fear, it’s the bureaucratic high costs of redevelopment that would strangle efforts to market the property.

My criticism isn’t directed at any individual or agency, but rather at the expensive mess left behind that’s hindering the state’s efforts to divest itself of a valuable asset.

“Even in its dilapidated state it still has an economic value to the state,” Hastings said.

I believe local and state officials all want the same outcome. Ideally, they’d like a developer to buy the property, tear down the old buildings and invest money to build something new.

But in the meantime, the site attracts the occasional trespasser, vandal and curiosity-seeker. Security guards hired by the Illinois Department of Central Management Services patrol the site.

“They call us when they have trespassers,” Tinley Park Police Chief Steve Neubauer told me. “It happens two or three times a year.”

The video voyeurs elude security who are on site 24/7. A state spokesman said annual costs of providing security were not readily available.

“While these costs are expensive, they are necessary to deter trespassing and the exposure to liability when these events occur,” Central Management Services spokesman Richard Bossert said in response to my inquiry.

My fear is that despite the best efforts of local and state officials, the property will languish for years. I think the longer it remains dormant, the harder it will be to redevelop. I’ve seen it happen with the state-owned Joliet Correctional Center, which closed in 2002.

Preservationists and Joliet and Will County officials saw great opportunity 15 years ago when the prison closed. The historic limestone structure where portions of “The Blues Brothers” and “Prison Break” were filmed offered tourism potential.

But the buildings are now in a state of disrepair. Firefighters responded to at least two destructive blazes at the old prison this year. City officials would love to get control of the land, but local jurisdictions are just as tapped for resources as the state.

I think it’s sad to see potential go unrealized at the old Joliet prison. I worry that in 10 years local and state officials will still be saddled with questions about what to do with the former Tinley Park Mental Health Center property.

“For me, it’s a liability to the state,” Hastings said. “I’m a firm believer in municipal control … If the state’s not going to use it, let’s put it to good use.”

I believe village officials are trying their best to redevelop the property. They’re discussing efforts to market the site northwest of Harlem Avenue and 183rd Street to gauge interest from potential developers.

“There are a lot of promising projects that could be put there,” Hastings said of the land near an I-80 interchange. “It’s probably one of the most prime parcels of state property we could develop.”

I think ideal redevelopment of the site would feature a mix of residential, commercial and recreational uses. But there are a host of environmental challenges, including buildings with asbestos, an abandoned sewage treatment plant, underground storage tanks leaking gasoline and soil contaminated with mercury and lead.

A study commissioned by the village estimated that cleaning up the site and demolishing buildings would cost at least $12.4 million.

That seems like a steep price, and I could understand if developers crunch the numbers and determine it’s not viable to make a redevelopment proposal profitable. I’m concerned that fretting over what gets built there will end up being the least of anyone’s worries.

I’m afraid that establishing a tax increment financing district and offering other local economic development incentives won’t be enough to seal a deal. I picture a nightmare where in 2027, voyeurs still visit the site with cameras and record videos of the creepy, abandoned buildings.

I wish the state had the resources to clean up the mess it left behind and return the land to a pristine green field, but that’s not how Illinois operates.

When a state agency closes a facility, other state departments get first crack at bidding on the property, Hastings said. He said directors of two agencies told him they were interested in the Tinley Park property, but they eventually lost interest.

After that, he said, the state offers the land to other government entities within the county, such as a municipality, school or park district. Tinley Park notified the state in April 2014 of its intent to purchase the land for just over $4 million, Bossert said, but backed off amid concerns about remediation and demolition costs.

If no government entity buys a property, the land could wind up being sold at public auction after the state obtains three appraisals.

There’s no mechanism in the process for the state to spend the $12.4 million or however much it would cost to tear down the buildings, remove the contaminated soil and make the property shovel-ready for development.

I think that’s too bad. Yet, I think Hastings appreciates the urgency to move on redevelopment plans now. He might be able to help negotiate state incentives to make the property more marketable.

“We’ve made incremental progress,” he said of efforts to sell the property. “It is my mission to have the property redevelopment under way by the end of my term” in 2021.

“I’m confident that will happen,” he said.

tslowik@tronc.com

Twitter @tedslowik

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