Three years after buying the vacant Opa! restaurant and banquet hall along Hawthorn and Lakeview parkways, the Vernon Hills Park District is moving forward with the final phase of incorporating the property into Century Park.
The property and vacant building, which backed up to Little Bear Lake, was bought for $2.2 million in July 2015 and demolished later that year.
New plans involve replacing about 65 percent of the parking lot with grass, using stone from the parking lot to create a new branch of the park’s trail, building a bathroom structure, and creating an electric conduit for events.
After the project cleared a July 11 zoning hearing, village trustees during a July 17 committee meeting gave preliminary approval to convert the three acres’ zoning from business district to conservation and open land. A final vote by the village board is expected on Aug. 14.
“Obviously, we helped you buy this property, so you guys doing something positive there is great,” Mayor Roger Byrne said on July 17 via a telephone conference call to the meeting. Byrne and trustees in 2015 donated $1.5 million to the park district’s bid for the restaurant property.
Park officials on July 18 approved bids for the $650,000 redevelopment project. Some of the bids came in high and the group did “value engineering” to stay under budget, according to park board president Dave Doerhoefer.
“It involved esthetics that were not functional, like a wall you could sit on that cost us $20,000,” Doerhoefer said. “We don’t need a $20,000 wall to sit on. The project is fine without.”
The $650,000 comes from the capital improvement fund, he said.
Executive Director Jeff Fougerousse said the transformation should be completed by the end of November.
The project also involves a new flagpole and new “Century Park” monument sign facing the busy intersection. Fougerousse said the district is excited to have a more visible entrance for its “most treasured park.”
Century Park, developed in 1976, encompasses 113 acres with two lakes, according to the park district’s website. It hosts such popular events as Summer Celebration and the Little Bear Rib Fest, as well as other special events and rentals. The park also has numerous basketball courts and a sledding hill.
Last year, Century Park became the first park district property in Illinois to receive an arboretum accreditation from the Morton Arboretum.
With some 200 people in the park at any given time during normal operating hours, the former Opa! parking lot entrance along Hawthorn Parkway is easier to use and more visible than the lot near the boat dock off Lakeview Parkway, officials have said.
Contractors managing the project said buying the former restaurant allows the park district to save money on parking, while also utilizing existing sewer connections for the bathrooms and existing electrical lines for special events.
In addition to the new trail with accompanying light poles and benches, plans show a patch of artificial turf designed for where a portable stage can be set up more securely for events.
Fougerousse said being able to use that area for secluded smaller events or to tie into bigger events is something the park board found very appealing.