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Woodstock City Council to discuss details for Benton Street outdoor dining area

WOODSTOCK – City officials are set to consider taking further action on the controversial Benton Street outdoor dining area Tuesday.

The Woodstock City Council wants to clean up Benton Street on the Square, which is known for its bars and grungy appearance. A proposed boardwalk and al fresco dining area between East Judd and Church streets that would be installed on the city’s dime has caused controversy among business owners and residents who have said taxpayers’ money should benefit the community as a whole.

Three restaurants and a bar have requested use of the boardwalk, if it’s installed, including Mia Passione, Benton Street Tap, Main Street Pourhouse and D.C. Cobb’s, which is owned by council member Dan Hart. The temporary decking would go along Benton Street and close down 12 parking spaces on the east side so the street would remain open to traffic.

The city put aside $50,000 in its budget to go toward bettering the area. It would be paid for out of the city’s tax increment financing district funds. Restaurants would be charged a fee for use of the space, the details of which council members are set to discuss Tuesday.

Some residents have said spending TIF dollars on the boardwalk is a misuse of taxpayers’ money. Others have said that they think there are more important projects the city should be eyeing.

Resident Molly Oakley said she’d rather the city address the roads and walkways on the Square, which she argued are unsafe for elderly people because of the differing curb heights, lack of railings and uneven cobblestone walkways.

“When I see TIF funds allocated for this type of project when the infrastructure of our Square doesn’t meet standard of safe passage, I don’t think that’s right,” Oakley said.

A shortage of parking on the Square and the conceptual effect on Woodstock’s downtown plan also are concerns. The city is in the process of developing an overarching plan for its downtown area, which includes identifying potential uses for nine different spaces.

“The thing that concerns me is that we go in and do this temporary thing – it may work out great and [we] want to keep it,” Woodstock resident Randy Tipps said. “But that may affect these other areas and what our plan will ultimately be. It’s a good idea, but if we are rushing it, it could affect our downtown plan.”

Increased light pollution, noise and cleanliness were concerns of resident Jenn Feeley, who lives on the Square, but she said that overall she is supportive of the plan.

“I think it can be a springboard, a catalyst,” she said. “I believe this will be a really positive thing.”

Throughout the discussion on the project, several have said that the idea seems to favor the restaurants that will be using the decking, although most council members in support of the project have said it will bring people to the Square and benefit the entire downtown.

Main Street Pourhouse owner Bryson Calvin said that with competition in Crystal Lake and towns closer to Interstate 90, the space would help make downtown Woodstock more of a destination place.

“It perturbs me that there are people out there that think these TIF funds are just going to these four businesses,” he said. “[They] are going to aesthetically enhance an area, and one spot that really needs it is Benton Street.”

The Woodstock City Council will meet Tuesday to discuss more details about the project, including the fee structure for the businesses and whether to allow Benton Street Tap to participate. The bar doesn’t serve food now but plans to start, according to city documents.

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