By Megan Dooley
If the rumors are true, the clock is ticking for the Oak Park Head Start program to pack up and find a new location.
According to Oak Park President David Pope, reports are circulating that the Madison Street building that has long housed the program has been sold, which means Head Start, a Community and Economic Development Association (CEDA) program, will have to move.
"Our understanding is that the property is now under contract," Pope said. He later added: "I don't know with whom."
Head Start and Early Head Start are child and family development programs that serve the villages of Oak Park, River Forest, and Forest Park. There are currently 68 children in the program, which works with kids between the ages of 3 and 5. Their location at 44 W. Madison (near Humphrey) was always meant to be a temporary one. The building was formerly owned by Park National Bank, which for many years allowed Head Start to operate there rent-free. In more recent years, CEDA did make rental payments to Park National, which were donated by the bank to the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation to be used toward the purchase of a new, permanent facility to house Head Start.
But when Park National was seized by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in 2009, that arrangement ended abruptly. In the time since, the FDIC has listed the property for sale. One online listing currently reads "in contract," but calls to the real estate broker went unreturned.
If the property has indeed been purchased, then the sale will likely accelerate an already active search for that permanent Head Start home. Carolyn Newberry Schwartz, executive director of the Collaboration for Early Childhood Care & Education, said the organization has worked closely with CEDA and Head Start over the years and has been involved in the search for a new location.
Newberry Schwartz said she couldn't confirm a deal had gone through on the current Madison Street property, but there has been interest. "We knew there was a buyer. We confirmed that in March," she said.
Unita Sims, vice president of CEDA, said she knows nothing about a sale and the Oak Park Head Start program has not been asked to move. "I can't let you know if the building has been sold because I'm not part of that process. We are operating Head Start out of that building, without any interruption of services," Sims said. But she said if such a sale were to take place, she'd be the one to hear about it. "It would be me," Sims said. "I would know."
But Sims has been actively involved in searching for a new program site and visited Oak Park earlier this month to check out four potential properties. She said that Pope knew about some vacant spaces in the village that might work for Head Start, and she came to take a look. But Sims didn't comment on whether she found the buildings to be good candidates for housing the program, and reiterated that there is no impending move. "The landlord has not given us any indication that we need to move," she said.
Still, the search continues. "There's a lot of interest in finding a permanent home for them," Newberry Schwartz said.
But the move won't likely be a simple endeavor, and if the property is indeed under contract, it would only increase the pressure to speed up the process.
"If CEDA is going to make a move, the ideal thing for them to do is to try to make a move in a way that doesn't disrupt the school year," Pope said. That means starting the next term, which begins in mid- to late-August, in a new building. For that to happen, teachers would have to have access to the building and their classrooms by Aug. 1.
Pope said the prior two months would be needed for a "build out" of the new facility, which would have to be approved by a number of boards and committees.
"They need a June 1 date to be able to actually get in," Pope said. "If they need that, they need to be able to have an approval from their board on May 17. To get an approval from their board on May 17, they need to get an approval from the finance committee the first week in May. To get an approval from their finance committee, they actually have to have a lease and lease terms in hand by that first week in May. So that's sort of the timeframe under which they're operating. Which means we've got a couple of weeks, basically, to work this thing out."
It's unclear if CEDA will meet the timeline to ensure that Head Start begins the next school year in a new facility, or even if they need to do so. But the effort to find the program a permanent home is ongoing.
"Mike Kelly was a strong supporter of this effort, obviously," said Pope of the former Park National CEO. "We were very fortunate to have his generous contribution of the space. But now we are working to support CEDA in their efforts to identify an appropriate long-term home for the Head Start program here in Oak Park.
"All of these folks from our community are deeply committed to a continued and strong Head Start presence in our community," Pope added, "to ensure that we can continue to meet the needs of all children regardless of background or economic circumstance."