Rendering of the park district’s proposed $22M rec center. | Provided

With the majority of its $22 million in construction funding secured, the Park District of Oak Park (PDOP) is moving toward the construction of its long-planned, zero-energy community recreation center at 229 Madison St.

“At the earliest, we could be in the ground in March of 2022,” said Jan Arnold, PDOP executive director.

While construction firm Bulley & Andrews is serving as construction manager, the project is being broken down by trade. The park district released bid specifications for 20 distinctive trade packages. In doing so, PDOP hopes to engage the services of several companies to build the recreation center.

“What we’re trying to do is to break it down so that we can remove as many barriers as possible to allow all different sizes of firms to participate,” said Arnold.

To further prioritize equity and inclusion, the park district has been working with the Oak Park community organization AMENS Group, a mostly African American men’s group which advocates for the welfare of children. As a result of these conversations, PDOP has promised to have 25 percent of the construction carried out by women-owned and minority-owned certified businesses.

“We are very excited about this commitment and to our knowledge the Park District of Oak Park is the first Oak Park government entity to establish such a goal for a construction project,” said Arnold.

Contractors have until the first Friday in November to submit their bids for consideration. Facing increasing building supply costs, the bidding process will aim to lock in costs, according to Arnold.

Fundraising for construction has been handled entirely by the Parks Foundation of Oak Park, a non-profit that works closely with the park district while being separate and independent of the taxing body.

During a Sept. 18 event, the parks foundation reported that 75 percent of its fundraising goal had been obtained through its “A Place to Belong” capital campaign. The name of the campaign is a reference to the park district’s plans to make the community recreation center accessible for all residents, regardless of age, capability level or income.

“I really think it’ll be a huge game changer for our residents,” said Arnold.

The land on which the park district will build the community center was also secured through a donation made by Stephen and Mary Jo Schuler, the latter of whom serves as the co-chair of the park foundation’s capital campaign alongside Dr. David Ansel.

The parks foundation is committed to raising the remaining $5 million, according to Arnold and confirmed by Edward Kerros, vice president of the parks foundation’s board of directors.

“They’ve done a tremendous job,” said Arnold of the parks foundation. “The parks foundation has worked so hard to help us get to this point,” said Arnold.

 As part of the campaign’s public fundraising phase, community members can purchase tribute pavers for donations ranging from $250 to $2,000. 

While the park district’s board of commissioners voted unanimously Oct. 14 to pass an ordinance authorizing the park district to issue general obligation debt certificates in an amount not to exceed $6 million, Arnold was adamant that money will not go toward funding the community recreation center.

“Those funds go into our capital improvement plan,” she said. “The parks foundation is still out fundraising. They’re committed to raising that remaining $5 million.”          

Likewise, a $400,000 donation from the village of Oak Park will not go into the  rec center capital campaign coffer. Instead it will help fund the building’s ambitious effort to be a zero-emission project.

Last March, the former village board voted unanimously to make a $400,000 contribution from the village’s sustainability fund toward making the community recreation center a zero-emissions building. Sustainability fund revenue is accrued partially through fees paid by single-family properties for refuse collection and composting, as well as through the village’s plastic bag fees.

The village receives five cents from the 10-cent charge on a single-use plastic bags in local stores. That money goes directly into the fund. At the time the village board made the commitment toward the community recreation center, Cara Pavlicek, then village manager, said the village’s portion of the fee was generating about $10,000 a month prior to COVID-19.

During that March 23 village board meeting, Ansell and Schuler told the village board that the park district was in the process of applying for a $1.6 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Foundation. That grant, plus the village’s contribution of $400,000, would carry the building over the financial threshold needed to obtain zero-emission status, the co-chairs said.

In addition to having a neutral carbon impact on the already put-upon environment, the community recreation center’s zero-emission standing will save about $80,000 a year in energy costs, said Ansell.

Arnold announced this week the park district was awarded that grant, now worth $1.78 million, in an email to Wednesday Journal sent Oct. 27. The Illinois Clean Energy Foundation will fund up to 80 percent of the cost to make the building zero-emission, which Arnold said is estimated to cost $2.2 million. The slight increase in the grant’s worth is due to anticipated price increases related to that endeavor.

The next hurdle facing the park district, said Arnold, is making sure construction of the recreation center comes within budget. She’s confident that it will be able to do so, as park district personnel have been doing some pricing along the way. 

“We’re excited to be at this point,” said Arnold.

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