Members of the Vermilion County Land Bank met last week in Danville and took the first steps towards becoming a regional land bank.

The board approved changing the land bank’s bylaws to allow communities from outside Vermilion County to join the land bank and also made a provision that would allow them to change the name of the land bank in the future.

Land Bank Executive Director Pat O’Shaughnessy outlined the reasons behind this move.

One of the major reasons behind the move involves future funding for the land bank.

O’Shaughnessy said that there is the feeling that the Illinois Housing and Development Authority will be more likely to issue grants to regional land banks in the future.

He said the feeling is that there will be IDHA money out there, but the money will likely go to those land banks that are more progressive and aimed at helping land banking to grow.

Beyond this, O’Shaughnessy said that the land bank, in its current form, is limited in the projects it can take on.

While the land bank has a $300,000 grant from IHDA that it hasn’t used yet, O’Shaughnessy said that money won’t go far when the land bank starts using it to bring down vacant and dilapidated properties around the county since the cost of demolishing the properties is so high and the chance for redevelopment is so low.

“We would love to go out and take down a few more houses,” he said. “But, at some point, you’re going to get down to hardly any money unless we start funding it a different way.”

O’Shaughnessy said the land bank needs to be able to generate its own revenue through redevelopment projects and branching out into other areas improves the chance that some of the properties that will come into the land banks possession will have potential for development.

“We really don’t have the development here where we can take a house, have somebody develop it and then sell it for a profit,” he said. “Champaign County has that, so they would probably bring resources to both counties to do that.”

Once the land bank is able to start generating its own revenue through developments, O’Shaughnessy said it will be in a much better position to address the needs of the communities it serves.

Chairman Wes Bieritz said the reason the land bank has been able to conserve its funds so well thus far is because its staff, O’Shaughnessy and Ryan O’Shaughnessy, who serves as assistant executive director, have not taken a salary for their work or for the use of their office and he praised them for donating their time and effort.

“The reason we’re keeping our balances up is because Pat and Ryan aren’t taking any money,” he said. “We appreciate that.”

As for the transition to the regional land bank, Bieritz said the land bank had three alternatives available to it for the future: stay the way they are and continue doing what they are doing with a half-time employee; form a regional land bank with just Rantoul and have the capacity to possibly hire a full-time staff member to lead their efforts; to expand the regional land bank to include all of Champaign County and possibly more eventually.

O’Shaughnessy said discussions with Rantoul have been going on since before the Vermilion County Land Bank was even formed as Danville was initially reluctant to join the land bank and Rantoul was considered as an option to base the land bank out of since it was a home rule community and that was needed to form a land bank.

Eventually, O’Shaughnessy said, Danville chose to join the land bank and Rantoul’s interest began to wane, so the land bank went forward without them.

Even so, O’Shaughnessy said, they continued discussions with Rantoul, which funded a feasibility study to see if a land bank was needed in the area, and have met with representatives from Champaign County, Mahomet, St. Joseph and Tolono, all of which have expressed an interest in forming a regional land bank.

O’Shaughnessy said the costs of starting up a land bank are high, estimated at $500,000, which many communities don’t have available for a land bank, so the prospect of joining with an existing land bank like Vermilion County’s was appealing to them.

He said the board could consider if they want to ask these new communities to provide an infusion of cash for the land bank over a period of two years to help with operational costs as Vermilion County did when the land bank was first getting started.

O’Shaughnessy said he didn’t think this would be a deal-breaker, but the board could consider their options regarding the idea.

Forming a regional land bank with communities in Champaign County would give the land bank access to blighted commercial properties that can be redeveloped, O’Shaughnessy said, which is something that currently aren’t available in Vermilion County.

He said the move would allow the land bank access to federal commercial property grants.

Currently, O’Shaughnessy said, they’ve been using grant money from IHDA, which is strictly limited to housing projects, not commercial ones.

He said all of the communities in the land bank currently have commercial properties that need to be torn down and redeveloped, but they can’t do anything about them due to the limits of the IHDA grants.

“We can’t touch them,” he said. “Hopefully, there’s grants out there that will allow us to do that.”

The move, O’Shaughnessy said, would also give the land bank access to the University of Illinois and the talented professionals graduating from there.

He said having a full-time staff would also allow for more grant-writing opportunities as currently their grant-writing capabilities are limited.

O’Shaughnessy said he didn’t see why they couldn’t retain the main office of the land bank in Vermilion County if they made the move to a regional land bank.

O’Shaughnessy said there’s no reason why the land bank would have to be limited to just Vermilion and Champaign counties, pointing out that they could form partnerships with communities in other neighboring counties if they choose to do so.

He recommended the board change the bylaws to remove any restriction to Vermilion County communities to free up the board to decide which communities it wants to include in the land bank in the future.

“It would just allow communities outside Vermilion,” he said.

O’Shaughnessy stressed that the board amending the bylaws at the meeting just gives them to choice to accept new members, the board will decide in the future if they want to add any new members to the land bank.

He said this is just a way to start the long process of forming a regional land bank and bringing in new communities.

“It really just begins talks,” he said. “Because there’s a lot of talking to be done.”