Community members and officials break ground on Saturday, March 19, during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Park District of Oak Park's new Community Recreation Center on Madison Street in Oak Park.. | Alex Rogals

A hundred people braved the cold and rain, March 19, to attend the groundbreaking ceremony of the Park District of Oak Park’s (PDOP) long-awaited Community Recreation Center (CRC). The event marked the beginning of construction on the promised net-zero facility at 229 Madison St., which is expected to open next spring.

In her opening remarks, PDOP Executive Director Jan Arnold expressed her appreciation of the community organizations and individuals who provided support and donated to the fundraising effort.

“Thanks for sticking with us on this journey,” said Arnold.

Kassie Porreca, president of the Park District Board of Commissioners, also spoke at the event. Illinois Senate President Don Harmon’s chief of staff, Eileen Lynch, was among the attendees, as was state Rep. Camille Lilly (D-Chicago).

The park district’s expressed intent is to equitably serve the entire population of Oak Park through the rec center, which will provide the community with gymnasium space, an indoor track and a fitness center. It will serve as a safe space for children as well, providing free after-school programming. Mental health services will also be accessible at the CRC thanks to a partnership with the Community Mental Health Board.

The park district committed long ago not to raise taxes to pay for the center’s construction, and the CRC is largely being paid for by grants and donations. The Parks Foundation of Oak Park, a volunteer-based nonprofit, has led the fundraising efforts through “A Place to Belong,” the capital campaign launched in early 2020. The nonprofit amassed $460,163 in donations and contributions that year, according to the 2020 tax filing. The filings for the subsequent years are currently unavailable.

 “A Place to Belong” is co-chaired by Mary Jo Schuler who, along with her husband Stephen, donated the Madison Street parcels on which the center is being built. The land is valued at just over $2 million. The Schulers are native Oak Parkers with a history of philanthropy to the park district.

“We can promise the CRC will be a safe, welcoming and empowering atmosphere for all ages,” Mary Jo Schuler said at the ceremony.

Last March, the Oak Park Board of Trustees voted unanimously to contribute $400,000 from the village’s Sustainability Fund to make the center a zero-emissions building. The park district was also awarded a grant worth $1.6 million from the Illinois Clean Energy Foundation to implement greater sustainability features in the CRC.

Roughly 80 percent of the campaign’s initial $22 million goal has been secured, according to parks foundation Vice President Edward Kerros. The project has been criticized by some members of the public for a perceived lack of financial transparency. Kerros declined to disclose the intricacies of the center’s financial backing, nor provide a list of major donors.

“I’m not going to get into all the details,” said Kerros.

Instead, he spoke of the generosity of individuals and organizations in the community that have contributed to the capital campaign. Kerros also noted that the foundation is in the process of applying for more grants to offset CRC construction costs.

Arnold likewise declined to discuss CRC finances beyond reiterating that the parks foundation had reached 80 percent of its fundraising goal. She repeated the park district’s commitment not to raise taxes to finance the project and that the park district was following through on that promise.

“It is important to note that since the beginning of the project more than three years ago, the park board has never said the project would not use tax dollars to fund a public facility,” Arnold wrote in an email. “The [park] board made clear, and all materials and planning reflect that fact, that there would be no increase in taxes to cover the cost of construction.”

In November, the park board voted unanimously to issue $6 million in debt certificates. Arnold previously told Wednesday Journal that those funds would not go toward the CRC, but toward the park district’s capital improvement plan fund. She later amended that, saying the $6 million could potentially be used to assist in CRC construction cashflow.

“The funds from the debt certificate are in the Park District Capital Improvement Fund,” Arnold wrote. “While the CRC Fundraising Team is still securing the final funds for the project, the monies may be used for cash flow. This depends on when the pledges are paid, final dollars are raised, and invoices are received.”

The park district’s finances recently came under public scrutiny after they requested $2 million of the village’s $38.9 million share of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. The village board opted, March 14, to give the park district only $1 million now and will determine later if another $1 million is needed. Village Trustee Susan Buchanan stated that the board had received emails from residents who expressed uneasiness with the park district’s request. Her decision to vote in favor of halving the park district’s request came “in light of some of the emails” the board has received.

In an email to Wednesday Journal, Arnold acknowledged those who have criticized the project and its financing but defended the need for the new facility.

“We are aware of, and have answered repeated questions from, a few people who are not supportive of the CRC that is needed to provide a recreational space for all Oak Park residents, regardless of age, race or economic status.”

Join the discussion on social media!