Cummings meeting focuses on future park uses

? With the will now strong, officials are hunting for a way to renovate monument and possibly entire park.

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Momentum is building for the renovation of River Forest's long-neglected Cummins Park, located at the corners of Harlem Ave. and Lake St. in River Forest. The block square piece of land, which has been largely overlooked for decades, has become the beneficiary of a confluence of recent events that may have finally overcome a tradition of benign neglect by the Forest Preserve.

Noting that there is a new attitude at the Forerst Preserve District, River Forest president Frank Paris said Tuesday that his administration would be fully involved and supportive of any process of change.

"My hope would be to persuade the Forest Preserve District to convert the whole park to recreational use," Paris said, adding that he would support a referendum to support such a project.

River Forest Historical Society chair person Laurel McMahon, who also serves as the chairperson of the village's 125th Anniversary planning committee, said Monday that Paris is among a number of key players who have agreed to be involved in discussions focusing on both the scope of any renovations at the park and the means by which to pay for them.

That process starts with McMahon's committee. As part of the planning for the village's spring-through-autumn celebration of its anniversary, the 125th Anniversary committee has selected the Cummings monument as its "Legacy Project." To that end, all funds raised by the committee, minus expenses, will be earmarked for that purpose. However, the project may encompass more than just the monument.

Paris said Tuesday that he's very encouraged by recent developments, especially the support Sylvestri and other at the Forest Preserve District. He's also content to let the 125th committee, which he calls "the best, hardest working committee I've ever seen," deal with the finances of the Cummings memorial renovation.

"They will probably find enough funds to accomplish that," said Paris of the committee.

The memorial, though, will likely be just the start.

"We were originally just interested in restoring the memorial," said McMahon. "As it turns out, the Forest Preserve District (also) wanted to make improvements."

Adding to the impetus for substantive movement of the park is the fact that the village is currently preparing to make $750,000 in streetscape improvements along the park's southern Lake Street boundary. The work, which includes improvements on some actual park land itself, was approved last December by the Cook County board.

"We're working on the edges," said Cook County 9th District Commissioner Peter Sylvestri, referring to the streetscape work Monday. "Now we need to work on the interior."

Monday morning several people involved with the project, including McMahon, architect and Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois President Joseph Antunovich, River Forest Village Administrator Chuck Biondo and Assistant Steve Guitierrez, and Forest Preserve staff met at the Park District's offices at the park to discuss the next step.

The purpose of the meeting, said McMahon, was to "plot and plan and get our cards on the table, and work together."

McMahon said that Antunovich, who was so impressed with the potential for Cummings Park that he agreed to provide the services of his architectural firm pro bono, also agreed Monday to work on cost estimates for a follow up meeting scheduled for March 14.

"We really haven't discussed dollars yet," said Biondo Monday night, "(But) the village is willing to cooperate."

So to, apparently, is the Forest Preserve District. In a letter to the Wednesday Journal dated Feb. 17  Silvestri, who has called the park "grossly underutilized," expressed enthusiastic support of the cooperative project. The new County administration, he said, is "dedicated to greater usage of the facility."

Sylvestri, who did not attend Monday's meeting, said that he'll meet with Bylina Thursday to discuss the park.

"The whole point is, how can we rehabilitate and rejuvenate Cummings Park," he said. 

The only problem Sylvestri sees is money?#34;the new Forest Preserve budget passed Feb. 8 has no extra funds for the park, so the Forest Preserve District currently lacks the funds to rehabilitate the facility without assistance from River Forest or some outside grant agency. Sylvestri said the County would happily put its support behind any grant-seeking effort.

The River Forest 125th Committee will have a clearer idea of the level of funding available to them after a June 17 cocktail party at Dominican University. That event will be the committee's primary fundraiser, along with the sale of commemorative banners, and donations from private parties, said McMahon. 

While people are excited at the likelihood of genuine progress on the park, McMahon stressed Monday that whatever steps are eventually taken the project would take time to execute well and properly.

"It doesn't pay to rush into it," she said. "It's very important we go into this in a very reasoned, deliberate way."

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