Lynn Allen, the administrator (and only full-time employee) of Oak Park District 97's Multicultural Center, which is currently located at Percy Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland Ave., has a bold plan for the center's future. The boldness is, in part, motivated by Allen's fear that the venerable institution's future is currently stuck in limbo.
Allen estimates that the center's 16,000 cultural artifacts from around the world, which are on display for elementary students in public and private schools across Oak Park, are worth over $300,000.
Due to the district's increasing enrollment levels, the center will be moved out of Julian by the end of the 2016-17 school year to make way for more instructional space. According to information provided by the district, the student population at Julian is expected to surpass 1,000 starting next school year and will likely remain at that level "through at least the 2019-2020 school year."
Where the center will land after it leaves Julian, however, is anyone's guess. In a statement, Supt. Carol Kelley said the district will work throughout the 2016-17 school year on securing a space for the center. She said the goal is to move the center to its new location by the fall 2017.
"Prior to my arrival, Dr. [Al] Roberts and the board of education had preliminary conversations with several community partners about the options that might be available for the center," Kelley noted. "I continued these efforts after I started my tenure here on July 1, 2015. I met with Frank Lipo from the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest to discuss the possibility of moving components of the center's collection to its site. I also met with a representative from the village about the prospect of incorporating the center into the proposed multicultural museum that is part of its strategic plan."
But at a Jan. 12 board meeting, Allen presented a much more ambitious proposal that entails the center taking over the current site of the district's central offices at 970 Madison St., after the district moves its administrative functions to 260 Madison St. She also suggested "another suitable building currently owned by [the village of Oak Park]," but didn't specify where that would be.
In a written proposal, Allen noted that the center "could be ready to open within a relatively short amount of time once [the current central office] has been vacated" and "with significantly less cost to District 97 or the village of Oak Park than if they wait."
She said that a possible collaboration with the Historical Society, which will move into old Cicero Fire Station No. 2 at 129 Lake St., "appears to have turned out not to be viable."
Tom Zapler, chairman of the Oak Park Community Relations Commission, said the commission had explored the feasibility of moving the center into the Historical Society's new location roughly two years ago, but officials from the Historical Society said the move wouldn't work. Attempts to contact officials from the society were not successful.
Allen's plan calls for making the center into a museum, educational hub and community center that would offer classroom space for school field trips, rooms for instructional classes (in language, martial arts, cooking, dance and other areas) and space to house the center's many artifacts.
She said the center could generate revenue from admissions fees, institutional membership fees, various service fees and rental space for cultural exhibits.
"I think a positive for [Oak Park] is the increased likelihood of making Madison Street a 'cultural corridor' like the 'Theater District' in downtown Chicago and like the 'Arts District' on Harrison Street in Oak Park," according to Allen's proposal.
The village's "Envision Oak Park" strategic plan, developed in 2014, lists as an objective the establishment of "a cultural collection offering arts and culture resources and facilities for residents and visitors of Oak Park and the surrounding region."
But Zapler noted that Allen's plan may be even more ambitious than the village's strategic plan introduced.
"I don't know how it could happen or how practical it is, but it's a wonderful plan," Zapler said of Allen's proposal. At the Jan. 12 board meeting, Allen herself described her proposal as "really pie in the sky."
"What Lynn does, and what the center does, is very, very impressive and goes along with Oak Park's vision of diversity," said Zapler. "We're just hoping that more people here know about what's going on and become involved, so that something better can be done with the collection. It's just really shockingly impressive what they've done."
Kelley noted that, in its efforts to secure a space for the center, the district will seek "to identify people enrolled in library science programs at the local universities who can help us properly catalogue the center's materials" (artifacts, books, magazines, etc.).