A lot has changed since Jan Pate first joined the Oak Park village board four years ago. Two years ago, she ascended to the top spot at the West Cook YMCA in Oak Park. Meanwhile, the nonprofit’s ambitious plans to build a multimillion-dollar new facility in Forest Park fell apart because of sluggish fundraising in a slumping economy.
At the village board table, she and fellow trustees were also hindered by the economy, as proposals to build apartment or condo towers on village-owned property in downtown Oak Park were put on the backburner. She and her fellow one-term running mate, Jon Hale, helped oversee smaller, more procedural changes at the board table — ones that shortened meetings and, she says, made it more attractive to serve as an elected official.
Wednesday Journal sat down recently with Pate to discuss her time spent on the village board and the future of the YMCA in Oak Park.
How do you feel now that your four years are finally over?
I really have mixed feelings. I have to admit, as this week has worn on and the emails in my inbox have decreased substantially, that it is a bit of a relief, just because the time pressure was so much. But obviously I’ll miss it. You can’t invest that amount of time and effort and passion into something and then all of a sudden it disappears. So, it’s really mixed feelings, but I knew that I had done what I had wanted to do, which was to serve the term, and now it was time to let someone else have that experience.
Are you going to miss it at all?
I think I’ll miss parts of it. I think that, because there are only six of us plus the president, there’s an intimacy that you have of what’s happening in your village that is really special. You always know what’s happening and who the key players are and you’re watching decisions and processes happen, and because, even as a former news person, I like being part of the news in terms of knowing what’s happening. So I’ll miss that. I’ll miss the camaraderie because I truly like and respect everybody on the board. I won’t miss the long meetings, although we were much better with that, and a lot of the complexity of the decisions and the time that it took to be properly prepared.
It seemed like sometimes you got frustrated with the slow pace that some of the deliberations took.
I am definitely a person who likes to keep things moving. And I think there’s a fine line, because I understand that we are a deliberative body and you shouldn’t rush processes just for the sake of time. But I also felt that there were times that we talked stuff to death, and because I had worked a full day, as did my colleagues, and I’m also a morning person, the later that it got in the evening, the harder that it was to focus. When you’re looking at multimillion-dollar development issues or complex projects, you want to be sharp, and sometimes I just felt that I wasn’t always at my best late at night. I invited them to meet at 6 and 7 in the morning, but they didn’t go for that.
Did you accomplish what you set out to when you ran for village trustee four years ago?
I would say that generally I believe that we did set out and accomplish much of that agenda, which was to keep Oak Park moving, and we have our action agendas. The biggest thing that precluded us from doing more, obviously, was the economic crisis that we faced. And there were simply things we could not do because there was a price tag attached to them and we didn’t have the money. So, the one thing that none of us could have expected was that we would spend a lot of our time really trying to make sure that the village stayed viable financially in really challenging circumstances. So that was something we didn’t expect to do, and we did. I think that in terms of business viability, we came through the recession very well. There are new businesses opening; that continues to happen. Sustainability, I think there were great strides made in that area across the board. Some of the big projects like Roosevelt Road, which was a tri-community project, I think those kinds of things were really important. I think we made some important strides in working with other governmental bodies, both inside and outside of the village. I don’t take personal credit for any of this, it was just things that the board did. I think personally, one of the things that I’m most proud of is the work Jon Hale and I did with protocols. When we ran, there were concerns that nobody would ever really serve on the village board because the meetings were generally unhappy, they were long, there were a lot of them, and I wanted to leave it better than I found it so good people would run, and I think in this last election we had good people running from all the parties, and that’s important and I think that will continue to grow. I also think our discourse at the board table was more civil and I think that’s a good thing for Oak Park all the way around. So I have a lot of good feelings about that.
What’s life been like at the top of the YMCA?
It has been challenging, but also really rewarding. We have come a long way in what’s coming up now on two years. We are really taking a look at how we serve the needs of the community. We’re clearly vested in collaborating with other nonprofits. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, we don’t want to duplicate. We’re engaged in partnerships with a lot of key agencies in the community. We’re doing work with PADS; we’re doing work with the children’s clinic; we’re doing work with Hephzibah; we’re involved with the task force that’s looking at shared services; we’re engaged with the community foundation. So, we just continued to look at what our strengths and resources are as a YMCA and how we can better serve. And then, we’re starting to look at long-range planning. There’s nothing definite yet. We’re just starting the process, but probably in the months ahead, we’ll definitely be engaging our members, our neighbors here in the south Marion area, and the whole community about what they want from the Y and how we can make that happen.
What changes have you made since taking over?
Physically, fairly soon after I took over, we changed the internal look. We have made change with regard to our residents and welcoming our residents as members of our YMCA. We have grown and expanded the projects that we do internally for the community. We bag lunches for PADs. We provide bagging services for food that goes to the food pantry, so our own staff members are engaged in community activities. We have worked very hard in governance and strengthening our governance and understanding how a not-for-profit board really operates, so those have been really strong. We’ve improved our internal training for our staff and giving people more opportunities to really thrive in a YMCA career. We planted a garden outside last year. We’re hoping to do that again this year. That was something new and different. And I think we’re just a whole lot more active and engaged in the community. We’ve also, because we serve other communities, we’ve been having a lot of conversations in Maywood and Melrose Park in particular about what kind of work we should be doing in those communities and collaborating with groups there.
What was the main factor that led to that deal with the Village of Forest Park falling through? Do you look at the deal differently now that you’ve had a few years to think about it?
I am a firm believer in the idea that, when things happen, they happen for a reason. Clearly, we were not helped by the economy at all. It simply was not the time to be trying to raise the kinds of dollars that we needed to build that building. But stepping back away from it now in retrospect and looking at what the YMCA really is as a charity, it may have given us a chance to re-examine what we want to be. And so that’s why the board will be looking at a long-range plan. I think we’ll be looking at what does that mean in terms of a facility, and how should that look, and where should that be and how should that be and what does the community want it to look like so that the next time we decide to do anything new and different, we have the total support of the community and they’re buying it before we move forward. I think that’s really important.
Do the same problems that led to you considering that move still exist with the YMCA?
Well sure, we have the same challenges. And they really are challenges rather than problems. We have some ADA accessibility issues, we have a small swimming pool and the need for a pool for all kinds of things, from swimming lessons to warm water aerobics and opportunities for folks to lap swim in a cool pool because we can never quite get the temperature right. Clearly that continues to exist, and because we’re landlocked, we don’t have an outdoor area so that we could provide all-day child care. So those are some of the things that we want to continue to look at, but there may be ways that we could collaborate with other groups and organizations to meet those needs. We need to have those conversations, because right now no one has the money to do everything they want to do. We’re trying to work around them. I had somebody tell me that they really love this building because it has a lot of character, and I think some folks feel really, really comfortable here. But it does have some limitations and we’d love to be able to improve some parts of it. It doesn’t keep us from what we’re doing, but we might be able to do it in a way that folks would like to see some of the improvements.
Do you think you guys will ever look at moving again?
I really can’t say. That is part of what the board will be looking at in the months and maybe year ahead in the strategic planning. There are a lot of things that play into that. So, truly, without trying to be evasive or wishy-washy or anything, I don’t know what the answer to that is, and that will really be a long-term discussion. There are a lot of implications, a lot of pieces of it, and we don’t want to do anything in the future without really taking a good look at it and making sure that, when we start down a path, it’s the right path.
Last year, the head of the board said you weren’t telling a relevant, compelling story and you weren’t ready to move at that point because of that. Has that changed at all?
I really believe it has. I think we’ve done a much better job of letting the community know that we’re a cause-driven charity. I’m out a lot. We’ve engaged people; we’ve brought them in; we’ve talked about how we can be of assistance to them. And I think that’s made a huge, huge difference. We’ve also made sure that our members understand that, when they’re a member here, they’re a member of something much bigger than just these four walls, that it’s a national movement. We are looking at youth development, at healthy living, and at social responsibility, and those are the pillars that are the foundation of the YMCA movement, so that was part of when Gerri came on as the board chair. That’s something that she and I discussed a lot and really worked hard, and I think that not only in my first two years as the CEO, but in her tenure as the board chair, that’s something she can look back on with great pride because, as the staff person I do what I do, and it’s my paying job, but our volunteers and in her leadership role, she really made that a cornerstone of what she wanted to do from a governance standpoint, and that was very important.
In the past, you talked about making improvements to the SROs here. Is that something that’s happened at all?
Actually, it has started. We have done some physical upgrades to the rooms. We hope to be able to continue with that because we feel that’s something we definitely need to do. When the Y was thinking of moving, it didn’t put a lot of investment up there, and now that we’re not moving, we want to make sure that the rooms are comfortable and appropriate for our residents. There’s a cost factor involved, so we’ve started upgrading some of them and as we are able to raise funds for that, we’ll continue. But that also is a question for the long-term strategic planning of the board in terms of how we view the residents, what that should look like in the future, what’s best for the community, all those questions. There’s a lot of questions there, and that deserves a very thorough, very thoughtful discussion, too, so that’s part of the strategic planning.
When do you think that strategic planning process will wrap up?
We are right in the beginning of what we call the implementation phase, and we will be starting conversations. We already have the new board because we changed our board and the new officers at the end of March. They’re starting those conversations, I expect, throughout he summer and fall. The various committees will be meeting to take a look at these things, and then as they come up with solutions, we’ll be moving forward on those and, for whatever we do, we want to make sure that the community is heavily engaged in that, so we’ll be keeping everyone informed as we move forward. But I would say it’s 12 to 18 months in terms of discussion and decision. Hopefully more on the 12 side, but these are big questions, so they require thorough study.
How long do you see yourself doing this job?
I don’t know. I can’t answer that. The Y is an incredible organization, and I think that I’ll probably know when I’ve taken it to the point that I feel like I need to take, and there may be other opportunities elsewhere. You never know. I’ll wait and see. I love the Y. I can’t imagine being in any other organization because I’ve been in the Y for a very long time in different capacities.