Eight years ago the River Forest Park District Board of Commissioners made a decision that turned part of the public parks into private space — available for use solely though payment of membership fees. That bad decision is resurfacing again now and creating more division within the community.
In 2012, after much lobbying by a small but dedicated group of platform/paddle tennis players, the park district board agreed to build two paddle tennis courts at Keystone Park (thereby eliminating a tennis court) with the proviso that paddle tennis participants would buy exclusive memberships and pay user fees in order to play.
Five years later in 2017, paddle tennis players again lobbied commissioners and two more courts were added, once again using exclusive membership fees as funding and once again reducing the number of public tennis courts available to all. River Forest residents who don’t buy memberships are now prohibited from using the paddle tennis courts — subject to fines and ticketing if they do.
Those previous decisions, predictably divisive, were a clear break from the past practice in the village. Tennis, pickle ball, volleyball and bocce courts are available to all residents without membership requirements and are built and maintained primarily via park district taxes.
While the ultimate result of these decisions is of benefit to paddle tennis players, the other very predictable consequences totally changed the dynamic of what publicly funded parks are supposed to be.
In real and actual effect, the River Forest board has:
• turned public park space into a private membership club primarily for adults,
• told the majority of residents that certain parts of their public parks are now off limits to them unless they buy a membership,
• created private club exclusivity for those who do purchase a membership,
• caused division and divisiveness within the community between residents who want public park spaces to be open and available for everybody and those who benefit from the exclusivity that the private membership fees provide.
Paddle tennis players now want even more of the available public space. They are asking the current park board to conduct a feasibility study for additional expansion. They say the sport is growing, so they need additional courts and a new warming hut. They claim non-member residents will not be harmed because they propose to pay for the next round of changes, again, through their exclusive membership fees.
That is exactly the way such changes would be proposed and funded if they were being brought to the board of directors of a private club.
But River Forest parks are not a private club, or at least they’re not supposed to be. They are a taxed public entity, a public trust, with property and programs primarily paid for by all taxpayers and intended for the non-exclusive benefit of all residents.
If the current River Forest park board believes more paddle tennis courts are warranted, so be it. They should approve them and fund them — build the courts, open the doors, pay for the changes through taxes and tell all residents they are welcome to use their parks and their courts as they see fit.
But turning more public park space for everyone into more private membership space for the few is divisive and wrong. It violates the very purpose of a public park. You don’t need a feasibility study to know it.
Bob Ray is a resident of River Forest.