The Park District of Oak Park is negotiating to buy a new, expanded home for its popular and profitable gymnastics center, Wednesday Journal has learned exclusively.

After years of discussions on how to find a new home for its cramped, crowded and oversubscribed gymnastics center, the park district has given a letter of intent to the developers of the Madison Highlands project and will now begin serious negotiations.

That sets a 30-day timetable for the park district to come to a formal agreement with the building’s developers, led by local entrepreneur Mary Jo Schuler.

“Gymnastics is consistently our highest-rated program,” said Mark Gartland, park district board president. “We’ve had waiting lists of upwards of 200 families. One of our huge goals has always been to expand the program.”

Jamie Lapke, the park district’s gymnastics director, said an expanded facility would allow her to do exciting new things in the facility.

“We can’t hold shows for parents or competitions right now, because there’s nowhere for people to sit,” Lapke said.

The gymnastics center is currently crammed into the park district’s main administration building at 218 Madison St., where it splits space with the park district’s building and grounds department, as well as the district’s central offices.

“About the only thing that works well in that space is the administration,” said Gary Balling, park district executive director.

In the proposed Madison Highlands building, just across the street from the current facility, the park district is proposing to double the gymnastics center’s. The facility would take up two stories of space, due to the high ceilings required for gymnastics.

In addition to the demand for the project, there’s a financial incentive for the park district to expand, as well. The gymnastics center is one of the park district’s few revenue generators. Over each of the last five years, officials said, the program has netted roughly $85,000 in profits.

“This program pays for itself,” said Gartland. “It’s not pulling from other things.”

The cost of the new facility is one thing that still needs to be hammered out, though. The park district has $5.2 million budgeted for renovation and relocation between the gymnastics center and the buildings and grounds facility.

“We know what we want, and we know what they have,” Balling said of Madison Highlands. “We haven’t really had a lot of the difficult negotiations yet, though – cost, amount of parking, how that would flow and work.”

Speaking to Wednesday Journal before the park district sent its letter of intent, Schuler was cagy about the prospects for a gymnastics center in Madison Highlands, but discussed the idea generally, as it had been part of the original plan for the building.

“Even though it seems unusual to place a gymnastics center inside a commercial development, gymnastics centers have very customized interior needs,” Schuler said. “It’s a lot easier to build and customize, versus retrofitting an existing building.”

Schuler and the park district have a prior relationship. Schuler has in recent years donated $235,000 for accessibility renovations to Longfellow Park recreation center, helping install an elevator and make the new playground handicap accessible.

Shuler is “a wonderful woman,” Gartland said, but he finds frustrating any suggestion that the park district would choose the Madison Highlands project for any reason other than it being the best option

Balling agreed.

“This is a public-private partnership that’s good for Madison,” Balling said.

Join the discussion on social media!

Ben Meyerson

Ben was Wednesday Journal's crime, parks, and River Forest reporter, until he kept bugging us enough to promote him. Now he's managing two of Wednesday Journal's sister papers in the city, Chicago Journal...