If the Park District of Oak Park’s plans to build a community recreation center come to fruition, the Oak Park Township Mental Health Board has agreed to provide mental health services onsite and contribute $1.5 million toward the estimated $18 million project.

During the July 11 meeting of the park district’s committee of the whole, park commissioners expressed support for the preliminary agreement between the two entities. The contribution will help cover capital expenses and serve as payment for a lease, but only if the park district raises enough money to move the project forward. 

Park commissioners are expected to approve the agreement as part of the consent agenda during their July 18 board meeting. 

The park district’s efforts to build a community recreation center come as a direct response to resident feedback. In community surveys, residents cited the need for more fitness facilities, meeting rooms and gymnasiums, among other amenities a recreation center could offer. 

So far, the park district set aside $5 million for the project, and in June, it received $500,000 in state funding as part of the state capital bill. Furthermore, Oak Park philanthropists Mary Jo and Stephen Schuler have been talking with the park district about donating land for the project. 

As park district Executive Director Jan Arnold explained during the July 11 meeting, the mental health component was something local high school students suggested during the 2015 feasibility study. 

Due to the stigma associated with mental health issues, let alone getting treatment, students may be reluctant to go to places that are explicitly labeled as mental health facilities. 

But because a recreational center would serve other purposes, they would be able to go in without worrying about what anyone who sees them may think.

Commissioner Kassie Porecca, who is principal at Wilmette’s Regina Dominican High School, said that she could appreciate how important that would be. 

“It’s really compelling for the kid — [the idea that] when I walk into the building, nobody knows what they’re there for, because there’s such a stigma,” she said.

The Oak Park Mental Health Board is an Oak Park Township agency that, according to its website, “assist[s] in planning, developing, coordinating, evaluating and funding mental health services in Oak Park.” 

Arnold explained that mental health board has already been looking into building a wellness center, and working with the park district made sense.

The two entities have put together a memorandum of understanding — a preliminary agreement that sets the basic framework that would kick in if the park district raises enough money to build the recreation center. 

The mental health board would contribute $1.5 million to cover the capital costs and the rent for a 35-year lease in the building. They expect to be able to lease five offices and a small conference room spanning a total of 1,500 square feet. The memorandum itself isn’t a lease. That would need to be negotiated separately once the funding is secured. 

The memorandum also specifies that, if either the park district or the board aren’t able to come up with their shares of the funding, or if they can’t negotiate the lease, the mental health board would be able to withdraw from the pledge.

Lisa DeNunzio-DeVivo, executive director of the Oak Park Township Mental Health Board, told the Journal that, while the details haven’t been formalized, they hope to be able to offer a wide range of mental health services for all residents. 

“If it does go forward, we are hoping to have satellite services from our vast array of mental health, substance use and developmental/intellectual disability partners,” she said. “Many of those services are no charge if residents do not have insurance coverage.”

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Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Growing Community Media newspapers in 2012, then from 2015...