“This is history in the making,” said Olivet Nazarene University senior Katie Reed. Invested in the success of Pembroke Township, an impoverished town just 23 miles away from Olivet, Reed is rooting for Pembroke residents taking ownership of their land.
Pembroke is fighting “community genocide” by conservancy groups, Hopkins Park mayor Mark Hodge said. And as a poor, minority community, they can’t survive without a fight.
It isn’t that the residents of Pembroke don’t believe in conservancy – it’s that they want a say, a voice in the planning of their community.
“We are the ultimate conservation,” Township supervisor Sharon White said. “The community is so pristine. Obviously we want [conservation]. We’re stewards of it. We’re the original conservationists.”
A Decreased Tax Base
Over the past four years, The Nature Conservancy has spent 1.3 million dollars in purchasing 284 lots in Pembroke and Hopkins Park, White said.
A majority of this land is property along water and sewer lines. This is a problem for prospective buyers who would not be able to connect to the town’s water or sewer lines if they wanted to build a home. This is a problem for residents because it decreases the tax base and infrastructure cannot be maintained. The Nature Conservancy pays five percent or less of what residents pay in taxes.
“What that’s going to eventually do for our community is implode it,” Hodge said. “We cannot sustain our government entities if there is no tax base to pay employees.”
Formulating A Plan
White created the charrettes, an intensive planning session where citizens collaborate on a vision for development. The Charrettes are divided into four quadrants, offering a voice to citizens.
In these sessions, community members focus on the strengths of their community, what needs to be preserved because of historical value and what needs to be preserved for nature.
“For the first time, instead of [The] Nature Conservancy fitting Pembroke into their plan, Pembroke residents are saying we’ll see if you fit into our plan,” Reed said.
Hodge assures that a portion of the community will still be set aside for conservancy, but it’s time Pembroke took ownership of their land. The Nature Conservancy wants to restore it to marshland.
“It used to be marsh just like Florida,” Hodge said, but with that type of restoration, an entire community would be wiped out.
“Where will they go?” Reed asked.
“It’s just like anyone else’s home,” White said. “We have a rich history of culture. Just because you’re poor, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a place to live.”
The feedback they receive from the charrettes sessions is wonderful, White said. “We have a mixed group of individuals from all kinds of backgrounds who have great ideas on how we should plan our community,” she said. “That’s the outreach part.”
Creating A Partnership
The Charrettes are partnering with The Field Museum in Chicago to develop a plan for the community. The Field Museum is providing resources such as map making, organizing community groups, and educating about the environmental issues and history of Pembroke.
Hodge would like this plan to include a reverse in the purchases of The Nature Conservancy has made so “normal taxes can be paid.” They are hoping to have this plan finalized in the next eight months.
A particular area of concern is the purchases along the water and sewage lines and the property being “landlocked” by The Nature Conservancy. The public park, for example, cannot be expanded because the land surrounding it is all purchased by [The] Nature Conservancy, White said.
More Than A Community Problem
The “community genocide” of Pembroke isn’t just Pembroke’s problem. Kankakee County receives grants because of the poverty in Pembroke.
“I would hope the community outside of Pembroke would want to be involved in these issues, even if it’s selfish reasons. It can have a huge impact,” Reed said.
Reed is especially passionate about Pembroke, calling many of the residents’ family. Growing up a missionary kid in Kenya, Reed said there are similarities between her home and Pembroke.
“It’s very communal,” Reed said. “We have each other’s back, we eat goat, and people are not equipped to solve their own problems, but we are empowering them through charrettes.”
“We are still looking for assistance in fighting this issue,” White said. “We welcome people who have ideas and influence.”
—Grace King, Executive Editor