UI mulls selling more farmland at Allerton

UI mulls selling more farmland at Allerton

MONTICELLO – Bridges – and roads, for that matter – apparently are not sexy.

At least not with donors.

And state agencies are not exactly rushing to repair or replace the crumbling bridge and bumpy roads within Allerton Park anytime soon.

Meanwhile, cracked paths need to be fixed. Garden walls need to be repaired.

Money is tight at the University of Illinois' Allerton Park.

The park's administrators and its advisory board have come up with a solution: Sell 400 to 500 acres of farmland immediately north of the park. As a result, the park's annual endowment could increase by about 40 percent, estimates David Schejbal, associate vice chancellor and director of the UI's Office of Continuing Education, which oversees Allerton Park.

"Over the past three to four years, we really turned a corner at Allerton. We found our focus and niche and have been able to really make some positive improvements with just limited resources," Schejbal said.

The UI has renovated a barn, and Allerton staff hope to turn it into a regular performance space. The UI converted a storage shed into office space and used sustainable building materials and energy efficient systems. The university also has opened up the conference center to weddings, renovated the pond and developed the diversified farm.

Allerton personnel also are considering several other ideas on how to improve the park, such as building a pavilion and addressing the deferred maintenance.

"The only thing standing in the way is the lack of resources. And we are working really hard on finding novel ways to increase our revenue streams. The land sale would be a significant step if that happens," Schejbal said.

Allerton consists of about 5,000 acres of land, 3,700 of which is rented to farmers. The annual proceeds from the farmland support the maintenance and management of the park. (The conference center is supported by special events and other activities.) Allerton also receives money from gifts and donations.

The amount of income from the farmland has not kept up with the rising costs of maintaining the park, Schejbal said.

The park typically has about $350,000 to cover maintenance, such as trimming hedges and watering plants, said Jim Gortner, Allerton's director of operations. That amount has not been enough to address major maintenance, said Gortner, who estimates the park has several million dollars' worth of deferred maintenance.

"We must find a way to deal with deferred maintenance," said William Sullivan, director of the UI's environmental council and a member of the park's advisory board.

The land sale wouldn't mean the UI could resurface the road, build a new bridge and take care of all the projects on its deferred maintenance list, "but it would improve our ability to maintain the park," Schejbal said.

The idea of selling some Allerton land to increase cash flow is not new. In 2003, the UI Board of Trustees approved the sale of farmland south of Allerton. It was to be sold to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which had planned on converting it to prairie.

But that deal fell through due to lack of state money, Schejbal said.

This time around, Schejbal is hoping a public land auction would work.

For now, the proposal is in the hands of university administrators and officials. Trustees must approve the sale. No vote is scheduled yet.

As for the road, in fiscal year 2005 the Capital Development Board, which acts as the state's construction management agency, allocated $1.5 million to the UI for resurfacing Allerton's roads. But the agency froze the grant due to lack of state funding.

"The project is one of a number of capital projects on hold because of limited availability of funding," said David Blanchette, spokesman for the board.

In the meantime, Allerton staff are looking into federal funding for bridge repair. The park is also in the early stages of a capital campaign to raise money for the bridge, which could cost from $1.5 million to $2 million.

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