The year 2014 saw notable progress in River Forest on multiple issues – economic development, village government finances, the launch of the most expensive public works project in local history. And it also saw two contentious issues – Roosevelt Middle School exterior construction and possible collaboration between the township and village governments – stall, fizzle and frustrate for another year.
River Forest’s financial picture continued to brighten. The village budget was balanced for the fourth consecutive year without cutting staff or programs. River Forest earned a third distinguished budgeting award from a national finance officers’ association. These and other efforts led Standard & Poor’s to upgrade the village’s credit rating to AAA.
A newly formed Economic Development Commission (EDC) started initiatives to retain and attract business. The way’s been cleared for a new grocery store to move into the Dominick’s site. The long-awaited Northside Sewer Separation project, the costliest and most ambitious public works project in the village’s history, got started.
Collaboration was successful on two fronts: an agreement was struck that will help advance the village’s environmental health and talks with other communities have put construction of a police shooting range into motion at Triton Community College.
The village and the township
However, collaboration between the village government and the township came up short as the two taxing bodies sparred for much of 2014 over merging.
The dispute began in January, when Rep. Chris Welch introduced HB 4425, a bill that would have led to a binding initiative to consolidate village and township governments. Voter approval would have allowed the village to oversee all programs and services, as well as the operations of the Civic Center Authority building. The roles of all township elected officials would end. The village, which backed the measure, noted that taxpayers could save as much as $150,000 in administrative costs annually. The township countered that the move would eliminate services.
The relationship between the entities became frostier. Talks between Welch, the village and township were unproductive; another session between Village Administrator Eric Palm and Township Supervisor Carla Sloan went nowhere. An invitation from the township to learn about services and its opposition to HB 4425 was delayed when village trustees unanimously wanted administrators to continue meeting.
While the bill was tabled in the spring and the village ended its support, the animus didn’t end. While a state lawmaker suggested the question should be on the agenda during an annual Township meeting, the matter never came up in April. An attempt to bring up the referendum during an “educational forum” in May led to a heated exchange between Village Trustee Tom Cargie, a supporter, and Township Trustee Anna Romeo.
A week later, Village President Catherine Adduci, during her state of the village address, opened the door to a resumption of discussions between administrators. An historic meeting between both boards occurred in July, but substantial issues, including the Civic Center Authority building manager position, were not addressed.
About the same time, a group of residents began gathering signatures to place an advisory question before voters. Two residents challenged the petition signatures before the Electoral Board. As a result, the effort came up 26 votes short of qualifying for the November ballot. Community division over the non-binding initiative spilled over during a regular village board meeting when Trustee Tom Dwyer, a supporter and then a detractor of Welch’s bill, harshly told his colleagues to keep their hands off the township. He and Trustee Carmela Corsini, who supported merger discussions, also criticized Cargie for circulating petitions.
Palm and Sloan met again in the fall, and the village agreed to let the township use its e-newsletter to announce programs and services. No other meaty issues were resolved.
Ironically, the township recently rewrote the contract of Dick Chappell, who has managed the CCA building for years; it also recast its connection to the Community Center. Contracts will be unveiled in early 2015, saving an estimated $50,000 annually.
Bright spots on development
A movement toward attracting business took off when the EDC began to mold tax increment finance districts on Madison Street and North Avenue. The volunteer panel also crafted a survey that could strengthen River Forest’s business climate. For the first time in several years, proposals were submitted to develop village-owned land at Lake and Park. Long-stalled discussions and a lawsuit continued with property owners at Lake and Lathrop in hopes of redeveloping that site. To add vibrancy to Lake Street, businesses along the major traffic corridor branded themselves The Shops of Lake Street, River Forest.
About a year after the Dominick’s site on North Avenue went dark, another grocery store, Fresh Thyme Market, is nearly ready to start renovating the property. With up to $1 million in Cook County property tax relief to renovate the site, the Phoenix-based corporation is targeting to open in 2015.
Quality of life issues
The River Forest Parks Foundation and the village government signed an agreement creating a sustainability committee. The all-volunteer panel will be the village’s go-to team on all things environmental, advising officials on policy and practice and educating the community on green initiatives.
The highly-anticipated Northside Sewer Separation project got off the ground in the fall with the completion of Phase Zero. That consisted of construction of an outfall and installation of a 96-inch diameter sewer that will run from the cul-de-sac at Keystone, across Thatcher and end at the Des Plaines River. Bids are yet to be issued for Phase One though construction is expected to start in the spring.
A decade after creating it, the village approved initiatives that should improve traffic and parking in the Public, Recreational, Institutional district; the area encompasses Roosevelt Middle School, Centennial Park, the public library, River Forest Tennis Club and First Presbyterian Church.
Roosevelt renovations stalled
The outcome of the Roosevelt Middle School exterior project was in doubt as District 90 scotched different iterations before settling on one approved last year. That plan was tabled after some residents called on the village to help forge a community-wide approach to parking and traffic. The resulting proposal, which would have given the area a campus-like feel, was approved in April, but was later tabled. The school board went back to the December proposal, one that is the focus of current development review board hearings.
The project continued to be a lightning rod. Lobbying became intense with petitions and email on both sides circulating around town before the development review board began conducting hearings in November.