Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb has completely reversed his opposition to the Park District of Oak Park’s planned community recreation center. Abu-Taleb has repeatedly voiced his criticism of the project in the past but at Monday evening’s village board meeting he pledged his support for it. At that meeting the village board unanimously voted to contribute $400,000 from the village’s sustainability fund to make the center a zero-emissions building. 

“I, for a long time, was not supportive of the community recreation center because I didn’t want the money to be coming from the taxpayers’ money,” the outgoing mayor said.

Abu-Taleb said he was “impressed” with the progress of fundraising in the public and private sectors and brought the project to the board table to “entertain the idea of the village collaborating on this project and help them get grants to make the building a zero-emission building.” 

Abu-Taleb invited Dr. David Ansell and Mary Jo Schuler, co-chairs of the “A Place to Belong” capital funding campaign effort carried out by the Park Foundation of Oak Park, a separate, non-profit entity that works closely with the park district.

The Park Foundation of Oak Park has a goal to raise $22 million to construct the project, with $11 million raised currently. The park district made a commitment to not raise their income tax levy to fund construction. The village’s contribution will not go toward the capital fund campaign nor the core construction costs of the building.

The park district is in the process of applying for an Illinois Clean Energy Foundation Grant worth $1.6 million to finance the implementation of greater sustainability features. The village’s $400,000 contribution not only makes the grant application stronger, according to Ansell and Schuler, but will carry the building over the threshold to reach zero-emission status, which will cost $2 million. Zero-emission buildings have a neutral carbon impact on the environment. The savings in energy costs, Ansell said, will amount to $80,000 a year.

“They have a commitment where they can get grants for 80 percent of the project and they’re looking for the 20 percent,” said Abu-Taleb.

Several public comments asked the village board not to contribute money to the project to protect small fitness studios. However, Ansell stated the recreation center would serve different demographics, particularly youth and seniors, while satisfying multiple needs and acting to strengthen and unify the community.

Schuler told the board that every aspect of the community recreation center was developed using a “lens of energy-efficiency and equity.”

As planned, the center will be built on Madison Street between Harvey and Highland. It will have an in-door walking track accessible at no cost for all, but will be especially appreciated by seniors, according to Schuler..

The center will also offer fitness classes for individuals and families, as well as access to mental health services and social-emotional programming for youth. 

The center also seeks to provide a safe and engaging place for youth to go after school hours, where they can congregate together and participate in teen programming.

“When teens congregate in our parks and on our streets, people call the police on them. Our community needs a place for our teens to be social and healthy with their peers on weekends and during evenings,” said Schuler.

Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla, who supported the project, said youth of color tend to be policed out of public spaces and wanted assurances that would not happen at the community center.

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Trustee Deno Andrews called the village’s contribution an “outstanding use of our sustainability money.” The project received his “full support.”

Money accrued in the sustainability fund does not come from property taxes. Contributions to the sustainability fund partially come from fees paid by single-family properties for refuse collection and composting. 

The village receives $0.05 from the $0.10 fee to purchase single-use plastic bags; that revenue also goes to the sustainability fund. Prior to COVID-19, the village’s portion of the fee was generating around $10,000 a month for about a year, according to Village Manager Cara Pavlicek.

Trustee Jim Taglia felt the center made for a good use of the sustainability fund. 

“It’s a plus for the village. It’s a plus for sustainability,” said Taglia.

The project also received the support of Trustee Simone Boutet, who called the recreation center “a fantastic community asset.”

“I support this project fully. It’s equitable,” said Boutet. “This solves a lot of problems.” 

Trustee Susan Buchanan supported the project but told the board the Energy and Environmental Commission had wanted to review the project prior to it going before the board. 

Abu-Taleb told the board it was “nice” to end the meeting after working together as a board and through collaboration with another taxing body on a project to the benefit of the environment and the community. 

Trustee Dan Moroney did not attend the meeting.

Schuler’s Good Heart Work Smart Foundation is a donor to Growing Community Media, the nonprofit which owns Wednesday Journal.

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