Supporters wave the flag for Bicentennial Park in Belleville

News-DemocratNovember 8, 2013 

— Stephen Bertelsman fished in the ponds off 20th Street for decades before the city reopened the property as Bicentennial Park earlier this year.

Bertelsman said everybody has a different opinion about whether the city should spend money to develop the park, but he believes it is a good idea.

Bertelsman, 65, said the city doesn't need to "go overboard" on spending for the park, but residents old and new to the neighborhood use the park.

Bertelsman has lived behind the park since 1969, when he completed military service, and he was a member of the old Anglers Club at the site before it closed.

He's happy to see the city and a new neighborhood association leading the way in improvement projects.

On Sunday, Bertelsman, a U.S. Navy veteran, will attend a flag raising ceremony organized by the Bicentennial Park Association and Neighborhood Watch Program for Veterans Day.

The event starts at 10 a.m. Sunday at Bicentennial Park, 4811 Belleville Crossing. Boy Scout Troop 3 will participate in the ceremony.

The association meets quarterly and the next meeting will be in January.

For updated information, visit the group's Facebook page by searching "Bicentennial Park Association and Neighborhood Watch Program."

Kari Tutza, the association's captain, said the group came up with the idea of installing a flag pole at the park because of the neighborhood's many military residents.

City employees will erect the flag pole before the ceremony in the Native Plant Garden next to the parking lot. The pole will have a solar powered light that will turn with the flag.

"This way the light will always be shining on the flag," Tutza said.

Belleville Achieves Strength in Character (BASIC) Initiative and the Belleville Parks and Recreation Department donated funds for the flag pole, Tutza said. And, the YMCA contributed stepping stones.

Tutza's neighbor, Tera Wilkes, 33, said the new park and the opening of the 17th Street extension to Belleville Crossing makes the area look better and more inviting.

"When all is said and done, it's going to be an amazing little park that's a lot more updated and on par with what other municipalities in our area have," Wilkes said.

Wilkes said she moved to the neighborhood off 20th Street about two years ago knowing about ongoing developments that would improve property values.

The neighborhood is straddled on one side by the park and Belleville Crossing, and on the other side by the revitalization of Lindenwood University-Belleville and the new Illinois State Police Crime Lab.

Wilkes' view of the park has not diminished despite the problems and price tag of the development, as publicized by some Belleville aldermen.

"Anytime something new is developed, there's going to be problems and it's never going to go perfectly," Wilkes said. "I don't really think we've come across any problems that are deal breakers or merit the level of concern that some of the aldermen have."

Alderwoman-At-Large Lillian Schneider has been publicly critical of the park, calling it a "fishing hole swamp" and a "money pit."

In recent weeks, residents have openly condemned Schneider's "negative" view of the park and the way she has delivered these concerns.

Schneider, however, said the public and taxpayers should know about all the problems at the park. She believes the city never should have invested in the park and officials need to stop using taxpayer money there.

Heavy rain in April and May caused at least $15,000 worth of flood damage at the park.

In July, Schneider reported toxin-producing algae in one of the ponds to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

As of June, the overall cost of the park was about $2.1 million. Only about three acres of the 43-acre property has been developed and city officials said most of the park will be left in its natural state.

The city agreed to develop the park in response to a donation of $400,000 from the Kimball family for a memorial plaza. A $93,000 grant has paid for some expenses but most of the money is from tax increment financing funds.

At a City Council meeting on Monday, Schneider again placed behind her seat a poster board with photos of what she finds unsafe or unsightly at the park: the bathroom flooding in heavy rain; tires and other debris in the ponds; and erosion around a wooden barricade.

The poster board prompted Ward 4 Alderman Jim Davidson to question why Schneider was allowed to display such information in the Council Chambers.

Davidson asked whether it meant he would be able to advertise a lawn mower he was trying to sell or Valentine's Day candy.

Schneider countered that her poster board highlighted an issue about city property, not personal property.

Mayor Mark Eckert said city officials will need discuss and decide what display boards are appropriate.

Perhaps displays should be permissible in the Council Chambers only if the topic is on the council agenda for that particular meeting, and other displays could be kept in another part of City Hall, Eckert said.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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