River Forest Park District and River Forest Township have not exactly had a good working relationship in the past.

In fact, contacts between them have been downright frosty since both agencies sparred half a decade ago over a deal to lease the River Forest Community Center and invest tens of thousands of dollars into converting the former Laidlaw building into a first-class recreational facility.

Now, in the spirit of détente, namely an intergovernmental collaboration effort that started this past spring, both agencies are talking, this time to find out how they can partner on space needs.

The discussions, which have just begun between park board President Ross Roloff and township Supervisor Carla Sloan, come at an interesting time on three fronts. The park district continues to reach out to current partners and new ones to solve its most pressing need: the continually growing demand for gym time and space for adult fitness classes and other activities.

Roloff and Sloan met most recently to discuss possible areas of collaboration on Sept. 4.

At the same time, park commissioners are mulling whether to spend as much as $4.8 million to build a new gym, perhaps with a walking track. A new facility for administrative offices would be constructed and attached to The Depot, 401 Thatcher Ave., the current home for staff. The interior of The Depot would become space for programming.

Another development that may help move that process along will take place later this fall when collaboration discussions begin. Space needs could be one issue that a subcommittee of representatives from all River Forest taxing districts begins to look at when it assesses community needs. 

That issue, raised by the park district and Elementary School District 90 during the initial collaboration meeting on May 27, seemed to fit what process is all about. River Forest Village President Catherine Adduci noted that “by collaborating more between taxing bodies, we can try to match needs with opportunities that work for all our residents.”

“We want to move forward in the interest of the community,” said Roloff, who called the initial meeting he had with Sloan encouraging. “I’m glad we have this chance to sit down and look forward.”

Whatever happens as a result of these discussions, the question of space needs could very well be a community issue that needs a community solution. 

Space shortage has been critical for years as officials have been seeking more room, for activities like basketball and fitness classes, among other things. The park district had hoped to solve this in 2010 when it put up a referendum to buy Oilily building at 103 Forest Ave. and turn it into a recreation facility. It was soundly defeated.

The park district then turned to the Community Center, which has some involvement in indoor recreation. The deal was to offer a nominal sublease to the center, a nonprofit housed in a building owned by River Forest Township. 

In turn the park district would invest funds to renovate the Laidlaw building at 8020 Madison St. That proposal was met with disdain by the board of directors of the Community Center and from the township, leading to cries of a “hostile takeover.” The park district and township barely have spoken since.

Since that time, the park district’s participation numbers have continued to grow. And there is a continual scouring the area for space. Yet, it’s not just space that’s needed, park district Executive Director Mike Sletten said: it’s the needed space for the right program at the right place at the right time.

The one partner the park district consistently turns to for space is District 90. The gyms, classrooms and other areas are used extensively by the park district, and that agency gets priority over any other entity, except for the district, said Anthony Cozzi, District 90’s director of finance and facilities.  

An intergovernmental agreement has existed between them since 1997, with the park district paying $5,000 annually, money that goes toward District 90 capital improvements, Cozzi said.

The park district also counts on Trinity High School for gym space for basketball and volleyball from November through March and Zumba classes during the summer. In return for the use of its facilities, Trinity uses the tennis courts at Keystone Park, the softball field at Willard Elementary and the fields for soccer and lacrosse at Priory Park, Trinity Athletic Director Rachel Meiner said. 

While they would like to, Concordia and Dominican universities rarely provide space as most of the room is used by both institutions. 

Even if these “stars” align, other issues will arise that the park district and township will have to contend with. The park district might have to pay for the space. Staffing and parking will have to be considered. Also as all of the Community Center’s programs are contained inside the building, another consideration could be whether they will need outdoor space for any new offerings.

Those issues will be addressed as the park district and township continue discussions and Sletten and Dick Chappell, the executive director of the Community Center, begin looking at what’s possible.

In an email Sloan said, “We will be meeting to further that conversation.” 

Efforts to get additional information were unsuccessful. 

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