In June, the Park District of Oak Park unveiled three versions of a proposed Ridgeland Common pool and ice rink facility, ranging from “existing,” or basic replacement to an “expanded” version featuring added amenities and programs, to a “visionary” model replete with every recreational bell and whistle money can buy. The price tags ranged from $38.6 million to $99.6 million, not including debt financing.

Thursday night, the park board commissioners opted for the basic model. Acknowledging limits to their bonding authority, a depressed economy and a local populace weary of ever-soaring real estate taxes, they opted to go with basic, with the possibility of an upgrade or two if taxpayers or some interested user group is willing to pay the extra freight.

After outlining the realities of building the three proposals, recreation development expert Jim Maland of Bonestroo, Inc. told the board his advice was, “Try to get unrealistic options off the table,” saying they would only create negativity in the public’s mind. Board members did just that.

“The visionary [design] is off the table, and the expanding [design] is on the edge and about to be pushed off,” Mark Gartland, park board president, told his board colleagues. In the final analysis, the added tax burden of funding such costly features as an underground parking garage, heated indoor pool and a proposed gymnasium above the ice rink was not a burden the park board was willing to ask taxpayers to assume.

Delay is also expensive

But putting off any decision regarding design and rebuilding is itself an expensive proposition, Maland pointed out.

“You’ve got 6-7 percent inflation per year as you wait until 2011,” he said, adding that design and construction could be complete roughly 2½ years after a final decision.

While refusing to ask taxpayers to assume too great a financial burden, Gartland was adamant the existing Ridgeland Common facility was not only past its useful life, but represented a financial burden itself due to ever-increasing maintenance and repair costs and limited revenue possibilities.

Thursday afternoon, Park District Executive Director Gary Balling, Gartland, Maland and Revenue Facilities Director Bill Hamilton gave a tour of the behind-the-scenes technical aspects of Ridgeland Common’s facilities to the media.

Their expressed intent was to convey the financial and management realities of dealing with the daily demands of keeping the increasingly antiquated facility functioning despite frequent minor and not-so-minor breakdowns. After spending $70,000 fixing leaky cooling pipes under the ice rink last fall, the district will spend another $161,000 for additional repairs this August.

Echoing studies by two consulting firms, Gartland and the others stressed repeatedly that the obsolete facility needed replacement, not just renovation.

Meanwhile, as Balling and others spoke with the press inside a cramped corridor housing staff desks, kids and teens splashed about in the original outdoor swimming pool that’s been operating since 1962.

However, Gartland said he and the park board heard residents’ concerns.

“Where I think the community has come together, just from people I talk to, our board, the park district citizens committee, the people who were involved in this whole process have said, that’s just too much money,” Gartland said. “I think we had visions of the community coming together behind a good plan. It’s still a good plan, but I think it’s going to be pared down from what our ideal situation would be.”

Gartland said the park district will be developing specific plans and cost estimates for basic redesign that will recreate an updated, improved version of what already exists at the east end of the park. That new facility will be built at the park’s west end by Scoville Avenue and the old facility will then be demolished.

Whatever extras are added will be up to the community as a whole and the fundraising prowess of several special user groups.

“It needs to be very clear going forward that we have limits,” said Gartland. “We can hope for [the extras], but we can’t plan on it.”


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