After 5 years of Barrie and more Barrie, park leader looks ahead

Free of former "cantankerous" board, Park District Director Gary Balling's long-time improvement efforts step to the forefront.

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

Parks Director Gary Balling may be Oak Park's most soft-spoken top government official - the sort of leader who gets most work done behind the scenes.

And as Balling quickly notes, it's hard to credit the positive changes the park district has seen with just one person. The new park board, and members of the two citizen committees that have worked with the district on crafting the parks' future in recent years, have all played key roles.

But last year, it was a confluence of the right people and the comprehensive planning effort that have brought to the forefront some of Balling's long-term efforts to improve the district. Efforts that have been long overshadowed by messy negotiations and delays at Barrie Park, and by the previous park board.

While Balling said he has a great deal of respect for the "unconventional tactics" that board used in negotiating a cleanup agreement with ComEd, he said the group could be most perfectly described with the word "cantankerous."

"We've turned in the direction I've tried to for the last four years," Balling said. "We have to get people off Barrie Park. Barrie Park is still a priority, but we have to have parks and recreation issues front and center."

"[With the previous board], we'd talk about Barrie Park, and get to the rest of the stuff at 10 at night."

Balling joined the park district in the spring of 2000. And like most everyone who's been involved with the cleanup project at Barrie, he didn't expect it to go on this long. At one point, Balling said he spent roughly 50 to 60 percent of his time dealing with the project. Later, it was down to 10 percent, and now it's back up to 20.

His biggest disappointment of 2004 is still tied to the project: Being unable to open the sled hill and playground at the park to the public by the end of last year.

But on matters of parks and recreation, Balling said, "I've reached my stride."

"I have a passion for what I do, and putting relationships together with citizens," he said. "The parks need help, and they need improvements. [The citizen committee's work] showed that other people were seeing some of the same things I was."

Some of those things Balling noted immediately upon joining the park district were use of awkward spaces for programming at the aging rec centers and poor record keeping, one thing he's seen contribute to problems between the village and park boards.

"It's been an interesting relationship with lots of ebbs and flows," he said. "I noticed coming in there weren't good records kept. After 10 years, [the village board] moved toward performance measurement, and that was the accountability they were looking for."

One of the biggest developments for the park district in 2004 was the decision to seek financial independence from the village. Balling is quick to say he's always worked for park districts?#34;not park districts joined at the hip to a village government. And a separation is something he's looking forward to.

"The hardest thing for me personally and professionally is to go ask [Village Manager] Carl Swenson for money. The park district is an important enough organization to stand on its own," he said.

The current elected leadership, and the work of citizens, has also brought him confidence in the future of the organization.

"The park board now is unbelievable," he said. "They treat the community with respect, and each other with respect."

"We now have a vision of an excellent park district. It's great to see us move from the status quo is OK, to we want to be excellent," he said.

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