In the face of mounting criticism, Governor Rod Blagojevich’s office announced via press release Friday afternoon that it was releasing $18.2 million in Open Space Land Acquisition and Development (OSLAD) grant money to 48 park districts and municipalities in northern Illinois.

The Park District of Oak Park will receive $400,000 for use in funding planned upgrades, totaling $1.36 million, to Longfellow Center starting in early August.

“We’re really pleased,” Park District Executive Director Gary Balling said Friday afternoon. “We’ve worked very hard with the board and community to make this happen.” The park district hadn’t yet heard formally from the Governnor’s Office, he said.

Balling called the OSLAD funds “the last piece of the puzzle.” Over $34 million in anticipated grant funds statewide had been frozen for unspecified reasons since January. Park district officials had written letters and testified before the Illinois state legislature last week, as the village’s elected officials expressed puzzlement over why the funds had not been released.

With their release, the park district and other government entities can now initiate bid processes and sign contracts for planned work, which includes infilling the northwest corner and constructing a new basketball court and seating area, installation of an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessible elevator, and a new play area for younger children, as well as landscape improvements.

Commissioner Christine Graves, who wrote to the governor along with park board president Mark Gartland, said “I’m pleased the governor finally released the funds, and the park district will be able to move forward with this project.” Graves was particularly pleased that work would proceed on the construction of the park district’s first fully ADA-accessible playground.

Gartland echoed those sentiments Friday, saying many people had worked diligently for 18 months to assure the construction work was well planned and thought out.

The Longfellow work includes the renovation and expansion of recreation facilities at Longfellow Center. Among the proposed developments are new playground equipment, a new and expanded splash pad area, interior pathways and a new basketball court.

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