Growing up and living in Oak Park for the last 55 years, I have seen many changes but one constant has been the park district, which has consistently fulfilled Oak Park’s vision of being an inclusive community by bringing together residents of all races and economic background. 

One characteristic of my family experiences at the park district is that its activities brought together residents from throughout the village. This is possible because programs are affordable, and the district scholarship program provides $70,000 in funds each year. The district provides equitable access to recreational programming for all of our residents and reflects our village’s values of strength in diversity.

The park district is able to do this because it is a good steward of our tax dollars and its long-range planning — most notably, the construction of the Gymnastic and Recreation Center (GRC) and the Ridgeland Common Complex (RCC) have been revenue generators because of expanded programming. Annually, the GRC and RCC generated $2.7 million and contributed $700,000 to the capital fund. These funds pay for capital costs and offset the costs of programs. 

Fifty percent of the park district’s budget comes from program revenues. Effects of the pandemic forced the closing of parks and elimination of programs, so half of the budget has suddenly disappeared. The district retained all employees on the payroll for three weeks after the shutdown began because it cares about its team. Unfortunately, with no program income and no budget relief, 262 part-time and seven full-time employees were furloughed. Since the park district is self-insured, it is continuing to pay 60 percent of the furloughed employees’ wages while they receive an additional $600/week from the Federal Cares Act. Eligible employees are also keeping their health insurance. 

The park district is still looking to the future. Before the pandemic shut everything down, the district used capital funds — not operating funds — to contract with an A&E firm to begin plans for the Community Recreation Center (CRC). Developing plans and having a shovel ready project makes the CRC eligible for DECO Grant funds. 

The estimated cost for the CRC is $25 million, of which $20 million is targeted to be raised by private donations through efforts by the Parks Foundation, run by volunteers who care deeply about Oak Park and its residents. The remaining $5 million will come from the district’s capital fund, supported by facility revenue generation. 

The CRC is important because it ensures that every Oak Park resident can access recreational enrichment opportunities to nurture their mind, body, and spirit. Oak Park’s diverse collection of families presents different recreation and fitness needs, and although Oak Park enjoys many park district services and amenities local residents lack access to a gymnasium, fitness facility, indoor walking track, or multi-generational community center that serves families and individuals, including our growing senior population. The CRC will provide a safe place for middle-school students after school to do homework, obtain tutoring, play basketball and other sports. 

The need to provide affordable adult fitness opportunities, as well as additional space to support team and individual sport endeavors is very real in our community. This facility will fill a void and extend affordable recreational services to Oak Park’s diverse population, reach underserved residents, and help strengthen our community bonds.

Vic Guarino is an Oak Park resident who served as a park district commissioner.

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