RANTOUL — Demolition of derelict residential and commercial properties as well as property rehabilitation could get a shot in the arm if a joint Vermilion County-Champaign County regional land bank becomes reality.

Ken Turner, village of Rantoul grants manager/HUD administrator, said several meetings have been held with Champaign County communities that appearinterested in formation of the land bank.

Vermilion County Land Bank Executive Director Pat O’Shaughnessy said that county’s land bank board of directors has approved changing the bylaws to allow communities from outside Vermilion County to join the land bank and to potentially change the name to reflect creation of a regional land bank.

“We’re excited about it,” O’Shaughnessy said. “I think the state is kind of pushing and looking for regional land banks.”

Vermilion County’s is one of only three land banks in the state. The other two are located in the Chicago area.

Rantoul has been at the forefront in Champaign County in researching the possibilities of the county joining a regional land bank. Turner led a recent meeting with several communities in the county to explain the benefits of land bank membership.

Several, such as Mahomet, St. Joseph and the county of Champaign, have expressed interest in joining, Turner said, but others said they had no interest at this time or want to take a wait-and-see approach.

The village of Rantoul was recently awarded a $150,000 state grant to conduct a study into the feasibility of a land bank.

“We have a consultant assisting us with moving this project forward,” Turner said. “So far, we have paid out $15,470 for our consulting fees. That is well within the Illinois Housing Development Authority guidelines.”

That consultant, Brian White, is the same one who assisted Vermilion County with the creation of its land bank.

Most of the planning work on the Vermilion County land bank, which has more than 15 members, including the county and a number of communities, has been done at no charge by O’Shaughnessy and several others. It was started by former Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer, who is now Rantoul village administrator, and former Vermilion

County Board chairman Mike Marron, who is a member of the Illinois House of Representatives in the 104th District.

Eisenhauer said during a recent village board meeting that one of the advantages of a land bank is that while it has similar opportunities that the village would have as a home-rule community, by putting property in the hands of a land bank, the village would forego the liability and maintenance that would otherwise be the responsibility of the village.

Rather than the village owning a vacant piece of property, that would go to the land bank, and it would hold the responsibility of the property until it is sold or transferred.

Work in Vermilion County so far has involved the demolition of dilapidated houses and marketing them for sale. The city of Danville has acquired about 175 properties for the land bank, most of them lots.

“We have done some work with communities in getting properties off the trustee sale,” O’Shaughnessy said. “A good example is the Lorraine Theatre Group in Hoopeston.

It owned the old National Bank building. They were afraid someone was going to buy it and just strip the marble.”

The land bank, however, bought the building in a trustee sale and transferred it to the theater group, which is a tenant there. The land bank did the same with the old Hoopeston city hall. The land bank is also in the process of tearing down a house in Catlin and another in Georgetown.

Turner said establishment of a regional land bank would likely allow for the hiring of an employee who would be able to devote much more time to projects than is currently done.

“This needs someone who can say, ‘This is my job, and I’m strictly focused on the growth and development of the newly formed land bank,’” Turner said. “We don’t have any idea what the job description would be at this time or have any person picked.”

The repurposing of residential and business properties has been the main motivator for Rantoul involvement in a land bank, Turner said.

“One of the things the land bank has to do is to look out for the interest of the citizens,” he said. “We’re here to help communities.”

Now that Vermilion County land bank members have given their OK to open it up to out-of-county members, it will be up to the home-rule community board such as Rantoul Village Board and the village boards of other communities that wish to participate to vote for membership.

“Having a regional land bank makes it more efficient, and we would be more likely to get funding,” Turner said.

O’Shaughnessy said one of the primary accomplishments of the Vermilion County land bank has been to educate towns in the community — “just making them realize that inventorying your houses as to the good and bad. (Let them know) where are the potential development properties. Every town from Rankin to Ridge Farm, they’ve got commercial properties that have been abandoned.”

Vermilion County has been in discussions with Rantoul since before the Vermilion land bank was even formed. Vermilion County, while expressing initial reluctance, decided to go ahead with formation of a land bank while interest in Rantoul’s land bank participation waned until recently.

Starting a land bank is not cheap. The cost could be about $500,000, but much of that money could be defrayed by state grants.

Development of a regional land bank would provide more funding options. O’Shaughnessy said it is believed the Illinois Housing and Development Authority will be more likely to issue grant money to regional land banks than to smaller ones that are operating on their own such as Vermilion County’s.

Future funding could come from the land bank taking a house, having someone develop it and then sell it for a profit. O’Shaughnessy said Champaign County is more attractive in that regard compared to Vermilion County because it has more potential for development.

dhinton@rantoulpress.com