DANVILLE — Walking through the heart of Danville's downtown business district, it's difficult to know the Vermilion River cuts through just 300 yards away.
A convergence of the Salt Fork, Middle Fork and North Fork river branches — which drain portions of Champaign, Ford and Vermilion counties — the Vermilion River quietly passes through Danville, hidden below steep northern banks densely covered with trees. Eventually it flows into the Wabash River in Indiana.
Near downtown Danville, the only sightings of the Vermilion River that don't require a hike are brief views driving across Memorial Bridge on South Gilbert Street.
City officials would like to change that and make the river a prominent feature of the city's downtown.
"I think the river is a beautiful natural asset that can serve as a great backdrop," said Mayor Scott Eisenhauer.
Riverfront development along the Vermilion River in downtown Danville has been discussed for years, and at times, even studied by local officials and pondered by private developers, yet the river remains an afterthought.
More recently, the city has been buying riverfront properties as part of a long-term plan to spur private development along the Vermilion River, primarily on West Main Street from the David S. Palmer Arena at 100 W. Main St. to Memorial Bridge on South Gilbert Street.
Last month, the city council agreed to spend $75,000 to buy the western-most building in that section, at 244 W. Main St. Last year, the city acquired, at no cost, the properties at 208-210 W. Main St., just west of the arena, but spent more than $30,000 to tear down the fire-gutted two-story building on that site. And city officials have been trying to negotiate the purchase of other properties in that strip on the south side of West Main, including the Bargain Barn at 230 W. Main St., which is owned by the Mielke brothers. The Mielkes also own other lots along West Main, including a two-story building whose front had to be demolished about a week ago because of structural problems. The owners paid for the work.
Eisenhauer said he believes the city is moving in the right direction by acquiring properties on West Main.
"Private developers don't want to spend lots of money buying land and doing demolitions," said Eisenhauer, adding that the faster a developer can get to construction, the more cost-effective the development. "We need to make that land ready and available for private development whether along Main Street or the river itself."
The area the city is targeting for development is generally a rectangle, bounded by South Gilbert Street on the west, West Main Street to the north, South Street to the east and the river to the south. About half of the area is wooded, extending from behind the buildings along West Main to the river's edge. Behind the arena, the bank is high and steep, but becomes much more gradual to the west of the arena toward Memorial Bridge. The rectangle is about 1,100 feet across, from South Gilbert Street to South Street, and varies between 400 and 500 feet wide, from West Main to the river's north bank.
David Schnelle, engineer and urban services director for the city, said the area does have some steep sections of bank, but it's been developed in the past and can be redeveloped.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is currently studying that section of river, planning erosion control and bank stabilization work in preparation for the removal of a lowhead dam just east of Memorial Bridge. The dam has been the site of multiple drownings in the last 15 years, and the state has pushed for the removal of low-head dams throughout Illinois for safety reasons.
Eisenhauer said developing the riverfront is not dependent on removal of the dam. But Schnelle said removing the dam does open up that stretch of waterway for recreational purposes, such as canoeing.
Schnelle said the north bank's grade west of the arena is gradual; a person can easily walk to the water's edge.
Farther up the north bank there are existing buildings, so that area already has been developed and can be again, Schnelle said, and if a developer would like to build closer to the banks, there might have to be additional shoring done. But most of those types of details would depend on the type of development, he said.
Across the river on the south side is another 40 acres of lowland woods that the city already owns. It's in a floodplain and cannot be developed, Eisenhauer said, except for recreational purposes, such as walking and biking trails.
The city also needs to be planning for utilities and other infrastructure to accommodate future development there, but that may come slowly, Eisenhauer said.
"But the city can be acquiring, clearing and opening space now to create vision for developers or providing recreational opportunities for residents now," he said. The river itself could be a destination, he said.
Eisenhauer said that in addition to trails and walking paths along the river, the vision includes a hotel and conference center adjacent to the David S. Palmer Arena, possibly places to eat and shop and somewhere along the river's north bank, a stage with some type of seating, possibly an outdoor amphitheater.
It's similar to the Vermilion Riverfront Concept Plan put together in 2006 by a group of area high school students as part of a High Tech Edge project sponsored by Vermilion Advantage and Danville Area Community College.
"I thought that was very well done," Eisenhauer said of the students' plan that took months of research. It included a recreation area, outdoor music venue and strip mall, and in a survey of more than 600 residents, entertainment and food and dining opportunities were the preferred choices for a riverfront. But at the core of the plan was a hotel and conference center.
"I think there are a lot of great opportunities to tie the arena to a hotel and conference center and to the downtown area as well," Eisenhauer said.
Peter Blackmon, executive director at the arena, said early versions of plans for the civic center included an outdoor entertainment area. And about a dozen years ago, he said, arena and city officials were discussing how to create a landing behind the arena, overlooking the river that could be used as an outdoor venue and would also lead to a river walk.
Steve Lane with the city's parks department was part of that committee. He said their concept included steps down the bank behind the arena leading to a landing overlooking the river and a river walk trail through the large wooded area to the east of the arena and behind the other buildings on West Main. He said there's already an access road near the bridge that was created when the bridge was rebuilt.
Lane said it's a very nice area with good recreational possibilities.
"It's like you're out in the middle of Forest Glen" County Preserve, he said.
Although the arena is an indoor entertainment venue, Blackmon said, it could be involved in recruiting outdoor entertainment to the riverfront.
"There is no doubt that with us being right there, we (the arena) would attempt to be players in accentuating any riverfront development," said Blackmon, who added that the city's acquiring property is just a first step. "It's honestly hard to get excited when you know things just take time. This is a good sign, and we are headed in the right direction."
But Eisenhauer said it's not just about the riverfront, it's about tying together the entire downtown from the Fischer Theatre and Danville Public Library at one end to the riverfront on the other, creating "a synergy" that could draw local residents and out-of-towners to the downtown.
"It's an overused phrase, but I really believe riverfront development is a game changer," Eisenhauer said.
And a Danville casino — which was included in a gambling-expansion bill this year that was vetoed by Gov. Pat Quinn — could be a game changer for the city's riverfront hopes.
If Danville gets a casino, the revenue the city receives would go toward special projects, Eisenhauer said, rather than fixed costs, like personnel. One of the areas he would use that money, he said, would be riverfront development.
"To me, there is no greater return on developing that investment than the riverfront," he said.
Eisenhauer said he also believes developing the riverfront could open up retail and other development opportunities for South Gilbert Street south of Memorial Bridge, which is primarily retail now, and close to Interstate 74.
With the Illinois River and Mississippi, many other Illinois towns have pursued river development, including Rock Island along the Mississippi River. In 2008, the city's casino was relocated from the riverfront to the new land-based Jumer's Casino and Hotel, allowing the city to develop the riverfront into a park that includes a performance pavilion.
Though not the mighty Mississippi, Eisenhauer believes the Vermilion River is also a natural draw.
"You give me some music and beautiful summer weather, and I can sit and watch water all night," he said.
Blackmon said natural resources are always some of the best tourism attractions.
"We've turned our back on ours since the town was created. You go to virtually any city that has a river, and they have taken advantage of it, and we haven't," he said.