“All public works projects come to an end. You endure the construction headaches and when the work is done, you have a beautiful new environment.”
That was something Village Trustee John Hedges said to me many years ago when he was the executive director for the Park District of Oak Park. We were talking about the Barrie Park remediation, the largest public works project in Oak Park history, but the topic could just as well have been the high school pools.
District 200 is about to take on their largest construction project in almost 50 years — rebuilding of the aquatic facilities at OPRF.
The high school pools were built in the 1920s and they are ready for a major restoration. It will be a significant public works project to be sure but the board is facing costs to do maintenance and small capital improvements that are arising every year. Everyone who owns a house knows there comes a point when it becomes more prudent to invest money going toward chronic repairs into something new. Do you need a local example? The park district has spent around $10 million on their pools in the last several years, and they were built in the 1960s.
The economies will be the same for the high school.
In 2010, the pools were closed to do drain repairs. This year the diving program has been suspended for code violations. And that’s only two examples. Repair costs will increase until the board chooses a design for new facilities or they will close the swimming programs entirely. At what point does the community decide to stop fixing the old and put its money and imagination into a new high school swimming pool?
The sketch below shows an example of how a new pool can be configured in the east end of the field house. (The red lines represent the existing pool and balcony.) I realize this is just a concept at this point, but turning the pool 90 degrees will allow for a comfortable amount of deck space and solve all the code violations. The work, and its considerable mess, will be encapsulated in the east footprint while programming can continue in the west end. When the new-pool phase is completed, the “lost” offices, weight room and gym space can be “given back” to the west building.
No one should be fooled into thinking that rebuilding the pool will be a small project. Moving athletic offices, gyms and equipment will be quite the logistical challenge. It will be similar in scope to the addition that the high school put on in the late 1960s while I attended the school.
Juggling the programs during the construction will be the responsibility of Athletic Director John Stelzer. It will probably be the biggest challenge of his career. Consider the opportunity costs to his department as he struggles to keep the physical education head above water (pun intended). The time could be used for so many other tasks. Unfortunately, many of those tasks would be applying Band-Aids and ice packs to the existing pool facility.
Our pools were state-of-the-art in the 1920s. Now our community has a rare opportunity to be state-of-the-art again in the 21st century. Once per century should be sufficient.
Tim Kelly was president of the Park District of Oak Park during the Barrie Park remediation. He is a building professional, a master swimmer and a former Huskie swimmer.