Reality check on Community Center

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

With any luck, the fever broke Monday night on the endlessly vague but remarkably expensive proposed collaboration between the Park District of Oak Park, the River Forest Park District and Oak Park and River Forest High School, the hoped-for sugar daddy of an up-to-$45 million plan to build a community center/indoor pool/track/mental health center/meeting space/gymnasium at some still-to-be-announced location.

At a special meeting Monday to hear more permutations on financing options that would drain its still large cash reserve, school board members finally spoke up. Thank you, thank you.

Oak Park's park district and Jan Arnold, its executive director, have been dreaming of such a facility for many years. Always they point to some community survey from a few years back where they report there was strong enthusiasm for such an all-encompassing facility. Sure. Why not? In a perfect world I want a community center, too.  

Oh, this means my taxes will go up by $400 a year? And you're taking that taxable property off the rolls? (Alternately, you're taking a chunk of my favorite park?) This will compete with all those private gym facilities that pay taxes? And OPRF still wants to build its own on-campus pool? This is a joke, right?

Somehow in its latest iteration, the park district convinced the cash-rich high school to consider being the piggy bank for the vast majority of the funds needed for construction. Both park districts and OPRF would invest $5 million toward the project. A phantom $5 million would come from "sponsors and naming rights." And the balance of $20 to $25 million would be ponied up by the high school as a long-term loan to the park district. 

The high school has been making sincere efforts to rebuild its community trust deficit after narrowly losing a tax hike referendum to build a pool one year ago. Parallel to the very private discussions about this community center notion, the school has been running a fully transparent, citizen-infused effort called Imagine OPRF. The nearly 50 citizens on the Imagine project have been charged with vetting previous OPRF facility plans — including the need to replace obsolete pools — and coming back to the school board with recommendations by next summer. 

On Monday, board members made clear that these two processes cannot run side-by-side, that OPRF cannot possibly fund both, cannot go out to voters for financial backing on both. 

All three taxing bodies agreed when they made an agreement to study a community center that Dec.1 would be the deadline for reaching a pact. If there is no path to financing this, and the school board seemed clear about that Monday, we ought to just call this off now. 

Make your holiday!: Want to do something that will make your family feel great this holiday season? Jump in as a gift-buying sponsor for a local family in the annual Holiday Food and Gift Basket project. This wonderful program will match your family with another local family whose holiday will otherwise come up short this year. The program provides first names, ages and gift suggestions for each family member. Add these folks to your shopping list, deliver your packages to a local church and in early December, volunteers will make the delivery. 

Find out how to sign up at holidaybasket@hotmail.com.

Don't "Wait Wait": Tickets are moving for our Wednesday Journal Conversation with Peter Sagal, host of NPR's "Wait Wait…Don't Tell Me!" Will be a great evening on Monday, Nov. 20 at Dominican. Tickets at OakPark.com/Sagal. A bargain at $20 if you use the WJsub promo code.

Contact:
Email: dhaley@wjinc.com Twitter: @OPEditor

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