During their Nov. 13 regular meeting, River Forest Park District commissioners agreed unanimously to allow the expiration of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that was critical to continuing talks about a prospective community recreational center that would have been shared by residents in River Forest and Oak Park.
According to the terms of the memorandum, entered into by the park districts in River Forest and Oak Park and Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200, the three taxing bodies needed to sign an intergovernmental agreement detailing how to fund the proposed center by Dec. 1.
The vote means that any movement toward making the community center a reality will likely be put off indefinitely. The District 200 school board is expected to allow the memorandum of understanding to expire at its regular meeting on Nov. 16.
In an interview on Nov. 15, Michael Sletten, River Forest Park District’s executive director, said that the expiration of the memorandum of understanding doesn’t necessarily spell the end of the community center proposal.
“We’re not out of the process, we’re just not continuing [it] at this point,” Sletten said.
The three districts signed the memorandum in May and had been in talks up until recently about how to fund the proposed recreational center — which would feature an indoor swimming pool, among many other amenities, and that would cost between $36 million and $47 million.
In an initial financing concept, each of the three entities would have put up $5 million to fund the proposed center, with the school district offering an additional $25 million out of its fund balance either as a direct loan (which would include interest) to the Park District of Oak Park or as a bond issue, which would be paid down each year through a variety of means, including with revenue raised from the center’s use.
At a District 200 board meeting on Nov. 6, high school officials said that Park District of Oak Park officials would only consider a loan from the school district.
But ever since the memorandum was signed in May, District 200 school board members have complained about a lack of vital details concerning the proposal, including whether or not the Park District of Oak Park has the financial capacity to pay off a loan of that magnitude.
District 200 board members also expressed concerns about the feasibility of funding the proposed community recreation center alongside the Imagine OPRF work group, a committee of 43 people who are responsible for making recommendations next year for comprehensive facilities improvements at the high school.
Like the community recreation proposal, the Imagine OPRF work group was formed in the spring after residents in November 2016 voted down a proposal to fund a $44.5 million five-year facilities plan with up to $25 million in bonds.
The plan included a new pool that would replace the two, roughly 90-year-old pools that the high school currently uses for physical education instruction and aquatics competitions.
Since the school district has been collaborating with the two park districts on the community center proposal, District 200 officials have stressed that the pool inside of the proposed community center would not preclude the construction of a separate swimming pool on OPRF’s campus.
The school district has allocated $20 million out of its fund balance to pay whatever board-approved recommendations the Imagine group comes up with.
“From a financial standpoint, I find it extremely difficult to be able to address these two issues independently,” said District 200 board member Tom Cofsky, referencing the community center work and the Imagine work, at a meeting on Nov. 6.
Most board members also expressed reservations about allocating money for the proposed community center project without getting sufficient community input first, a scenario that the Dec. 1 deadline had not allowed for.
Sletten said that he’s waiting “to see what happens with the Imagine group” before re-examining the community center collaboration, adding that he expects the group to be done with their assessment by late spring or early summer. After that point, he said, talks could resume.
Attempts to contact Jan Arnold, the Park District of Oak Park’s executive director, were unsuccessful, but in a letter to Wednesday Journal, which will be published next week, the park district’s board of commissioners wrote that “partnering with other government entities is a win-win situation.”
The letter did not mention the memorandum of understanding or what actions, if any, the Park District of Oak Park plans to take on the center after Dec. 1.