The River Forest Park District is celebrating its 100th anniversary with loads of community meet-ups, cake, games and pomp.
But the huge community celebration, slated for Thursday, 5-9 p.m., in Keystone Park, should really be held in honor of the last 24 years, when the agency's real gains can be measured.
Election of younger board members, attuned to the needs of the growing number of children in town; a series of renovations and property acquisitions; and a longstanding, committed staff have combined to turn a once-staid agency into a genuine community asset, former and current commissioners say.
"Mike Sletten has done a wonderful job of really pushing things forward. We have a strong, committed staff who take great care of our parks. I'm proud of our progress," said Molly Hague, the park board's current president.
1913 to 1992
The park district, founded in 1913 was at one time not River Forest's main provider of outdoor recreation facilities. Program responsibilities fell to the village's Playground and Recreation Commission.
The commissioners were an entrenched group. The park district's responsibility it seemed was simply to cut the grass and keep the spaces presentable, said Kevin Collins, who served as a park board commissioner from 1989 to 1995.
Outside of traditional activities for kids, such as football, baseball and ice skating, few options were available while lifelong resident Ron Steele was growing up. There was no day camp, few arts and crafts programs. Kids in River Forest "didn't know about all the things kids do now," said Steele, who served as commissioner from 2005 to 2011, two of those years as vice president.
Tom Cargie, who served as a commissioner from 2007 to 2013 and is now a village trustee, noted there was institutional resistance to programming, which in the 1970s led to the formation of the River Forest Civic Center Authority and creation of the River Forest Community Center.
Some improvements to the parks took place in the 1960s and '70s. Baseball fields, playground equipment and other upgrades were made at parks around town. The train depot was purchased in 1974 and housed the park district administrative offices.
The slow ascent toward becoming a true park district began in the late 1980s. Families with young children started clamoring for more programs. And some of those parents, starting with Collins, began running and winning seats on the park board.
A major shift took shape once the new members gained a majority. Collins said the park district bought new playground equipment, upgraded Keystone and Centennial parks and made other improvements.
The turning point came in the early 1990s when the agency and the village began discussions about merging the park district and the Playground and Recreation Commission.
According to park district records, the move would eliminate the duplication of services, streamline local government, better coordinate recreation services and improvements to programming could be made.
The notion won overwhelmingly support from commissioners. In March 1992, the Village of River Forest, and a month later the park district approved the merger. That move also authorized the park district to take over the playground and recreation tax.
"The best thing the village did was to give its responsibility to the park district," Steele said. "It allowed the park district to grow into a true government entity. The park district's mission is truly for the benefit of River Forest residents. "
Major purchases, major renovations
Improvements began in earnest and programming exploded. There was clamoring for more green space for baseball, soccer, football and other outdoor sports. In a land-locked community, however, few places with enough land for ballfields were available — except land on Harlem Avenue and Division Street owned by the Dominican order.
In the early 1990s, the park district began eyeing that space; so, too, did developers who wanted to build homes and condominiums. Steele said he and other community leaders sat down and spoke with the Dominicans about preserving that 8-acre parcel as open space.
In 1992, the voters overwhelmingly said yes to the park district's plans, approving a $2 million bond referendum to help buy and create Priory Park. River Forest kicked in $970,000 and both the village and park district were successful in getting a $400,000 grant from the state to make that work. The total cost of the acquisition was $3.75 million dollars. Athletic fields, a playground area, paved pathways, landscaping and a shelter building near the main entrance on William Street were added; Priory Park opened in 1996.
Around the same time, the park board also began examining whether to buy 2 acres on the former Washington School site. District 90 had considered selling the entire 3.4-acre site and using the funds for possible expansion of its schools. Meanwhile Alcuin Montessori, which had leased the parcel since 1979, had considered buying the site.
Intense conversations began, and in 1996 the community overwhelmingly spoke again, approving an $850,000 bond sale to buy 2 acres for athletic fields. That has helped the expansion of sports programs.
Tens of thousands of dollars went into major improvements in all of its facilities. Growth in youth activities since that time has led to a multitude of agreements with D90, Trinity High School, Oak Park and River Forest High School and other entities to use facilities for programming, in addition to sports.
Programming needs weren't limited to youth. Adults, too, wanted to see more activities geared toward them. Several residents brought forward the idea of bringing in paddle tennis.
Commissioners hadn't heard of the game, Hague said. Staff did their due diligence. Community members helped gauge residents' interests. And a tennis court at Keystone was transformed into two paddle tennis courts. A building at Keystone was converted into programming space and a warming room for paddle tennis. That program has boomed in popularity, Hague said.
Residents also expressed interest in bocce ball, and a community survey confirmed that. Two courts were installed at Memorial Park, on Lake Street near Lathrop Avenue, a park too small for soccer, but a spot where the popular game could easily fit in.
"It was an interesting use of space," Hague said. "It worked out well so we could make it happen."
Interesting use of space — converting small rooms for a range of activities and retooling hallways and rooms — has helped the park district grow as well.
But what would push the district to the next level would be a recreation center. The facility would put to rest the need for indoor facilities, Steele said. Indoor sports and other non-athletic activities would be brought under one roof and would be allowed to grow.
The park district approached River Forest Township about long-term leasing of the Community Center. The township refused to deal. In hopes of resolving the issue, the park district placed a question on the February 2010 ballot to approve an $8 million bond issue to purchase the Oilily building at 103 Forest Ave. and turn it into a state-of-the-art facility with a running track, gym, workout center and plenty of programming space.
A contentious campaign ensued, fueled by a multi-pronged campaign started by Gale Landers, the founder and CEO of the Fitness Formula Club, at 1114 Lake St. in Oak Park. Residents also were hanging onto the animosity that had grown around the community center, Steele said.
The initiative failed. Only 576 residents voted in favor; 2,599 opposed it. 4-1. Cargie said the recession and declining property values played into the defeat.
"It was pretty clear [the recreation center] was not perceived as a need," he said.
Steele called the failure to pass the measure short-sighted.
"We were shocked at how bad it went down in flames," he said. "They also were concerned about taxes. They felt they didn't need it. It would have benefitted River Forest for the next 100 years."
If the park district were to find the right spot and financial conditions were correct, the issue could resurface, Hague said.
"The big obstacle would be finding the space unless something could be worked out with the township."
For now, the park district will see what the community wants next. Results of the latest community survey are being tabulated; results will be made public this fall.
Early totals point toward more adult fitness and wellness.
"Surveys like this will help keep us on track and ensure there's something we're not overlooking," Hague said.