By Ken Trainor
Oak Park and River Forest are suffering from referendum fatigue. And no wonder — it's been a busy couple of decades. Just look around.
Thanks to a referendum, there's a massive, modern new main library in Oak Park, shining like a beacon on the western edge of Scoville Park. And the Maze and Dole branches underwent expensive upgrades that nonetheless managed to maintain their small-town charm.
After decades of deferred maintenance, the Park District of Oak Park is out from under the shadow of village hall — thanks to a referendum — and all the parks have either been upgraded or are undergoing master plan processes for future upgrades. The two outdoor pools have been improved and/or rehabbed. The Scoville Park War Memorial has been restored to its 1925 grandeur. The rusty old fence around Mills Park has been refinished and new openings make the park more accessible. The park district recently purchased the Aldi building near Lake and Austin, which will likely house the gymnastics center. There are state-of-the-art basketball courts at Longfellow Park and new sand volleyball courts at Rehm. Tennis courts have been resurfaced across town. Stevenson has a skate park. Lindberg has a "presidential garden." Austin Gardens has a sprinkler system. Barrie Park was famously remediated, then resurfaced. The Oak Park Conservatory is a jewel again. And there's more to come. Thanks to taxpayer generosity, the park system in Oak Park has basically been reinvented.
Two modern-looking (too modern-looking, some say) middle schools now crown the District 97 elementary school system. Both were built thanks to a generous infusion of funding from taxpayers. That allowed a total reconfiguration of the remaining elementaries, reducing them to K-5s instead of K-6s. And a second infusion from taxpayers this past April, will keep the district financially sound, we trust, for the foreseeable future.
Two referenda — thanks to both River Forest and Oak Park voters — generously financed a flurry of upgrades at Oak Park and River Forest High School, which has revamped its East Avenue mall, refurbished its aging football stadium, added a sizable recreational field across Lake Street, not to mention artificial turf and lights, plus plenty of computer technology and a very, very large fund surplus that should keep the high school out of the voting booth for many, many years. And, of course, the Village of Oak Park, by way of Oak Park taxpayers, gifted the high school with a two-level parking garage along Lake Street.
Speaking of the Village of Oak Park, taxpayers paid for a $30 million Public Works facility a few years back. We've also financed a new parking garage in the Avenue business district, a fancy new brick street with heated sidewalks on Marion, a new parking lot where the Colt Building used to be, and, thanks to the TIF districts (downtown and on Madison Street), we've also helped finance lots of quasi-private development in the last two decades, including the Shops of Downtown Oak Park (Gap, Old Navy, TGIF, etc.), which started it all.
Meanwhile, over in River Forest, taxpayers paid for the purchase and development of Dominican Priory land, adding a much-needed new park. Residents also funded an extensive upgrade of Keystone Park, paid for a new village hall and gave District 90 schools an infusion of cash. And an old textbook building has been converted into the River Forest Community Center. River Forest also modernized and expanded their charming library without sacrificing the charm.
As in Oak Park, they helped finance Seymour Taxman's development of a shopping center along Harlem Avenue (River Forest Town Center I & II).
No wonder these towns are TIF and referendum fatigued. The good news is that we did most of this before the economy tanked.
Why is that good news? Because we pretty much got through our municipal reinvestment list. Except for the Ridgeland Common ice rink, we don't have too many loose ends left. Nobody is in dire need of a referendum. As a community, we have admirably and thoroughly reinvested. Taxation with representation. That's how it's done. Not all communities are so generous, but we were.
As a result, we're in much better shape to outlast the Great Recession. Other towns have glaring needs that won't get addressed. Their aging facilities may not last till the next upswing.
You can look at taxes as an unnecessary evil (as the fanatics do) or a necessary evil (like many moderates do). Or you can look at it as a necessary investment that we have to make periodically if we want quality of life, if we want to feel good about the towns we live in.
What Oak Park and River Forest have done over the last 20 years is extraordinary and admirable. Even though taxes are a burden, even though it was painful the last few years, we reinvested because that's what it takes to live in places worth bragging about.
Yes, the increasing intensity of "weather events" in the era of climate change may force us to redo our sewer system. And District 97 is making noises about the need to shore up their aging buildings. It never ends, but we're in better shape than most.
You may quibble with how much was spent and/or how it was spent. As taxpayers we have that right. But don't forget to pat yourself on the back. We did good.
Our municipal mottos could be: "Restore, rehab, renew, reform, reinvest."
Was it worth the steep price? There's only one way to answer that.