The Park District of Oak Park is inching closer to achieving its goal of building a community recreation center, thanks to a notable land donation made by Mary Jo and Stephen Schuler, local philanthropists and long-time park backers. Now underway is a capital campaign organized by the Parks Foundation of Oak Park and a renewed effort to gain state construction grants. 

“It felt right for us to donate the parcels for the purpose of building a community center,” said Mary Jo Schuler. 

The donation is an acre of land on Madison Street, comprising six property parcels located between Harvey and Highland Avenues and three parcels west of Highland.

“It’s become clear from my volunteer work and from the community feedback collected by the park district over the last decade that there are program and recreation needs in the community,” said Schuler.

Mary Jo and Stephen Schuler were both born and raised in Oak Park, where they developed their appreciation for the village’s public parks and the district’s activity offerings. 

“Our families, while growing up, benefited tremendously from park district programming,” she said. “My husband and I were in a position to donate.”

While the Schulers are “very excited” about the future community center, they did not originally acquire the land for that purpose. 

“We originally assembled and purchased the parcels almost 10 years ago with the original intent of accommodating the gymnastics center,” Schuler said. “That did not work out.”

A new park district gymnastics center was eventually built at Lake Street and Humphrey Avenue.

The Schulers held onto the land until Nov. 6, 2019 when the property was transferred from Harvey Madison Development LLC, which the Schulers manage, to the Parks Foundation of Oak Park, a nonprofit that raises private support for projects that enhance public parks and greenspaces. The next day, the foundation transferred the land to the park district.

The community center will include an indoor walking track and space for indoor basketball, pickleball and volleyball. It will also allow the park district to expand its program offerings, which Mary Jo Schuler is particularly happy about.

“I’ve worked as a volunteer and philanthropist with a program called Success of All Youth and I’m very excited about the extended programming opportunities, not only for youth, but also for families and senior citizens,” she said.

The acquisition of the land puts the park district in a better position to make the community recreation center a reality.

“The land is one of the biggest hurdles,” said Jan Arnold, executive director of the park district. 

The community center, taking up approximately 48,000 square feet, will sit entirely on the donated acre of land. As of now, the park district has no architectural blueprints, just design renderings. 

The park district plans on having a membership-required fitness facility, afterschool programs and a mix of paid and free programming in the community center. 

“The funding from the programs and the fitness facility would help offset the costs of the free things,” said Arnold.

Free community center amenities include the walking track, as well as a free open gym and community rooms available after school for students.  

“Not every kid is a sports kid. We want to provide safe spaces for all kids right after school from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday,” Arnold said.

According to Arnold, the community center would be a break-even operation.

Due to a planned partnership with Oak Park Township, the community center will also give residents, including children and teens, access to mental health services.

The idea to add a wellness center to the plans came directly from a 2016 feasibility survey conducted by the park district, where students told consultants directly that they wanted a place to seek mental health services inconspicuously. 

“There would be a capital contribution from the mental health board. In essence, it would serve as a prepaid lease for, like, 35 years,” said Arnold. “We haven’t worked out an agreement yet.”

Phase one of the project is estimated to cost $18 million dollars. According to Arnold, the Schuler’s donation has a value of a little over $2 million. The state of Illinois has also given $875,000 to the park district for the project. The park district also just applied for the state’s highly competitive Park and Recreational Facility Construction Act (PARC) grant program, requesting $2.5 million. 

A planned Phase 2 would include an Aquatics Center with indoor pools for warm water therapy, lap swimming and zero depth play.

The park district does not intend to levy any new property taxes to pay for the community recreation center.

“One of the things that the park district board has said over the last several years is that they would not be going to referendum to ask for a tax increase in order to build this facility,” said Arnold.

The money collected from TIF expirations will not go toward the project but to cover minimum wage increases for park staff.

To help the park district procure the rest of the funds, the Parks Foundation of Oak Park just launched a capital campaign, titled “A Place to Belong.”

 “I think it’s phenomenal. Assisting the park district with extraordinary projects is one of their cornerstones and this definitely is an extraordinary project,” said Arnold of the foundation. “Frankly, it wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for their involvement.”

Established in 2012, the Parks Foundation of Oak Park is a completely separate entity from the park department. 

“The Parks Foundation is not employed by the park district. We are a group of volunteers who are donating our time to help support the park district’s amazing programs,” said Edward Kerros, board vice president of the Parks Foundation of Oak Park.

“Over many years, the park district has done surveys in the community and we’ve certainly heard from the community and seen the results of the surveys… and it’s just become very clear that the community wants and will support what the community recreation center is hoping to provide,” he said.

Kerros believes the community center will benefit all Oak Park residents, including senior citizens and adolescents.

 The foundation believes in the importance of community investment and is accepting donations both large and small.

“Clearly we’re looking for some large donations if we’re going to get to $18 million dollars to build phase one. However, we’re looking for any size donation,” Kerros said. “We want the community to know that this is for them and if anybody can give any amount, we feel that’s important.”

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