After seeing their plans for an expanded recreation facility dashed at the polls in February, park officials in River Forest are at the mercy of those organizations in town that happen to have gymnasiums at their disposal. Of course, that predicament isn’t especially new for the park district but it will be difficult to meet a growing demand for services, according to Michael Sletten, executive director of the parks.

For years, park programs have been held at schools and colleges in River Forest, and that relationship is likely to continue, said Sletten. But the next three summers will bring “significant” renovations to the District 90 schools, according to Anthony Cozzi, business manager for the schools, likely touching off a domino effect that will see programming shuffled. That work is to keep the buildings in compliance with state safety requirements.

Compounding the need for indoor recreation space, said Sletten, is an estimated 50 percent increase in recent years for park offerings, particularly among adults.

“We’re always trying to improve our programming offerings, but space constraints are the biggest problem,” Sletten said.

At 401 Thatcher, the district’s main building, classes in yoga, cooking and painting have less than 1,000 square feet to maneuver. The park district had hoped to build a new, larger facility at the former Oilily property, but voters overwhelmingly rejected the $7 million project.

Dale Jones, the president of the park board, said the goal for the foreseeable future is to negotiate for affordable rates on gym space. He’d prefer to barter with area schools and offer them the use of any park facilities they might need, but fees to cover staffing and cleanup are expected.

“Basically, subsequent to the referendum, we’ll continue to talk with owners of various indoor facilities,” Jones said.

Amy McCormack is the vice president of Dominican University’s business office and spoke with Sletten just a few weeks ago. The college is certainly open to working with the park district, she said, and can probably offer its facilities on Sundays. Any rental fees usually associated with using the gym would likely be waived. However, there is only one gym on campus and students are already jockeying for time. During the summer, Dominican also hosts several athletic camps.

“We have capacity issues for our collegiate teams, let alone recreational opportunities,” McCormack said.

Sharing gym facilities is made trickier, too, by the similarity of each scheduling request. For example, Sletten said he could certainly find a gym to hold basketball games in the middle of the day on a Monday, but that doesn’t work for would-be participants.

At Dominican, students’ practices begin in the late afternoon.

“The park district’s need is the same as our need,” McCormack said.

The fields surrounding Roosevelt Middle School are owned by the park district, and Assistant Principal Tina Steketee said a formal contract exists between the school and the parks. In what amounts to a trade agreement, students get to use the fields for outdoor events and the parks have access to the gym at Roosevelt.

But with construction projects in the schools expected, the park could lose out on gym time. Cozzi, the business manager for the schools, said that if those projects interfere with their own programming – such as summer school – there’s no way the park district should expect access.

“We have significant work scheduled this summer at Lincoln, next summer at Willard, and the summer of ’12 at Roosevelt,” Cozzi said.

In years past the park district used all three gyms mostly during the winter months. That has shifted and Cozzi said the park is now looking for even greater use of the school gyms this summer.

CONTACT: jadams@wjinc.com

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