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CARBONDALE - Though the discussion has been tabled for now, the question itself looms large - what should be done with the Carbondale Park District's Hickory Lodge?

The historic home on Sycamore Street was donated to the park district by the Martin family. The Martins owned Martin Oil Co., a company that operated service stations throughout the region and also sponsored a legendary softball team, the Martin Oilers.

Until this week, Hickory Lodge has been home to the park district's administrative offices. However, the administration has packed up and is moving to the district's LIFE Community Center on Sunset Drive. The move, designed to make park administration more efficient and more accessible to the public, leaves Hickory Lodge with two tenants, neither of them directly affiliated with the park district.

"The park district administration is in one building now," said Eden Thorne, park board president. "It will make the administration more efficient, and more user friendly for the public."

Thorne said residents used to reserve some district facilities by going to Hickory Lodge and some by going to the LIFE Center. With the exception of Hickory Ridge Golf Course reservations, which will be made at the golf course itself, all other facilities are now managed from the LIFE Center, making dealings with the park district more of a "one-stop shop."

However, now that the district offices have moved from Hickory Lodge, questions have arisen about the feasibility and purpose of maintaining the building and grounds.

One possible solution the park board has considered is selling the property.

Michael Heck, board treasurer, said Hickory Lodge has been appraised at $250,000. He said it costs about $20,000 a year to maintain the building and grounds, including all utilities. The move to the LIFE Center, including refurbishing for additional office space, cost about $58,000. If the park district no longer maintained the lodge building, the move to the LIFE Center theoretically would be paid for within about three years from the savings on maintenance and utilities.

Two agencies currently call Hickory Lodge home - Carbondale Community Arts and Keep Carbondale Beautiful. Partly to give those two agencies time to plan for their own futures, and partly to buy time to gauge public opinion, the board voted to table discussion of the lodge for now and not to pursue action on it until the end of the fiscal year in June.

Maintaining the building is already in the budget, so keeping it until the end of the fiscal year will not add costs to the budget. Specifically, that means the building's two rent-free tenants have a home there at least until June.

"Anything we do (with the lodge) the public will have a chance to express their opinion," said park board commissioner Harvey Welch. "If another agency wanted (the building) and was willing to meet our criteria, though, we should consider selling it. If (we decide on a sale), we want to recover a fair market value. If renting it, then minimally we would want it not to cost us anything, and ideally we'd like to make some money on it. The administration is leaving the building, so it is appropriate to start thinking about what we should do with it next."

"I'm willing to look at all options," Thorne said. "I don't want to put any other agency on the street, but fiscally I have to look at the needs of the park board. Historically, it's a beautiful building. I would hope the public would say - if we do dispose of the property - that we do it in the best interest of the park district."

"Most of the decisions we have to make as a board," Heck said. "The public needs to be involved in this one. We'd have money to do a lot of things (if we sold the lodge for its worth), but we'd be giving up a landmark. Having the people's input puts the board in a better position. It keeps us honest."

Nancy Stemper, executive director of Carbondale Community Arts, said she was pleased the board will allow her agency and Keep Carbondale Beautiful to stay for now.

"It's not like we were in the dark (about the move and its possible consequences)," Stemper said. "The recommendation to let us stay until the end of the fiscal year came from an ad hoc subcommittee of the park district's Building and Maintenance Committee, so we are happy that they agreed to let us stay and that the staff is supportive of it."

Stemper said CCA is currently looking into several plans to present to the park district board that might allow the agency to stay in the building indefinitely.

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"One of the things we need to pursue is public opinion," she said. "During that time, we are investigating uses (for the building) that would allow us to stay as tenants and generate enough revenue to pay for the facilities. I envision it as a very interesting public space. It has great potential for public events. I would like to make some proposals that would keep it a public facility, but I understand you have to pay the heat and light bill. I'm not unrealistic about the cost of maintenance."

Sally Wright, recreation superintendent for the park district, is part of the ad hoc committee to determine the lodge's fate. She said the committee plans to seek public opinion.

"I'm very interested in hearing what the community wants. We've had different suggestions, from having renovations done that would make it easier to hold receptions there - the grounds are so nice, and we do already have weddings there. On the other end is selling it, but that has certainly not been the number one comment. The only thing that has been determined is that the tenants can stay until the end of the fiscal year because it is already in the budget to maintain the lodge."

Tom Redmond, director of Development Services with the City of Carbondale, said the building is not currently on the city's historical register, but it is on a list of potential properties that might reasonably apply for the designation.

Those interested in voicing their opinions can send letters to the park district at the LIFE Community Center, 2500 Sunset Drive, Carbondale IL 62903 or to call the park district at (618) 529-4222.

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