Site donated for Oak Park rec center

With land donation and capital campaign, community center moves closer

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By Stacey Sheridan

Staff Reporter

The Park District of Oak Park is inching closer to achieving its goal of building a community recreation center, thanks to a notable land donation made by Mary Jo and Stephen Schuler, local philanthropists and long-time park backers. Now underway is a capital campaign organized by the Parks Foundation of Oak Park and a renewed effort to gain state construction grants. 

"It felt right for us to donate the parcels for the purpose of building a community center," said Mary Jo Schuler. 

The donation is an acre of land on Madison Street, comprising six property parcels located between Harvey and Highland Avenues and three parcels west of Highland.

"It's become clear from my volunteer work and from the community feedback collected by the park district over the last decade that there are program and recreation needs in the community," said Schuler.

Mary Jo and Stephen Schuler were both born and raised in Oak Park, where they developed their appreciation for the village's public parks and the district's activity offerings. 

"Our families, while growing up, benefited tremendously from park district programming," she said. "My husband and I were in a position to donate."

While the Schulers are "very excited" about the future community center, they did not originally acquire the land for that purpose. 

"We originally assembled and purchased the parcels almost 10 years ago with the original intent of accommodating the gymnastics center," Schuler said. "That did not work out."

A new park district gymnastics center was eventually built at Lake Street and Humphrey Avenue.

The Schulers held onto the land until Nov. 6, 2019 when the property was transferred from Harvey Madison Development LLC, which the Schulers manage, to the Parks Foundation of Oak Park, a nonprofit that raises private support for projects that enhance public parks and greenspaces. The next day, the foundation transferred the land to the park district.

The community center will include an indoor walking track and space for indoor basketball, pickleball and volleyball. It will also allow the park district to expand its program offerings, which Mary Jo Schuler is particularly happy about.

"I've worked as a volunteer and philanthropist with a program called Success of All Youth and I'm very excited about the extended programming opportunities, not only for youth, but also for families and senior citizens," she said.

The acquisition of the land puts the park district in a better position to make the community recreation center a reality.

"The land is one of the biggest hurdles," said Jan Arnold, executive director of the park district. 

The community center, taking up approximately 48,000 square feet, will sit entirely on the donated acre of land. As of now, the park district has no architectural blueprints, just design renderings. 

The park district plans on having a membership-required fitness facility, afterschool programs and a mix of paid and free programming in the community center. 

"The funding from the programs and the fitness facility would help offset the costs of the free things," said Arnold.

Free community center amenities include the walking track, as well as a free open gym and community rooms available after school for students.  

"Not every kid is a sports kid. We want to provide safe spaces for all kids right after school from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday," Arnold said.

According to Arnold, the community center would be a break-even operation.

Due to a planned partnership with Oak Park Township, the community center will also give residents, including children and teens, access to mental health services.

The idea to add a wellness center to the plans came directly from a 2016 feasibility survey conducted by the park district, where students told consultants directly that they wanted a place to seek mental health services inconspicuously. 

"There would be a capital contribution from the mental health board. In essence, it would serve as a prepaid lease for, like, 35 years," said Arnold. "We haven't worked out an agreement yet."

Phase one of the project is estimated to cost $18 million dollars. According to Arnold, the Schuler's donation has a value of a little over $2 million. The state of Illinois has also given $875,000 to the park district for the project. The park district also just applied for the state's highly competitive Park and Recreational Facility Construction Act (PARC) grant program, requesting $2.5 million. 

A planned Phase 2 would include an Aquatics Center with indoor pools for warm water therapy, lap swimming and zero depth play.

The park district does not intend to levy any new property taxes to pay for the community recreation center.

"One of the things that the park district board has said over the last several years is that they would not be going to referendum to ask for a tax increase in order to build this facility," said Arnold.

The money collected from TIF expirations will not go toward the project but to cover minimum wage increases for park staff.

To help the park district procure the rest of the funds, the Parks Foundation of Oak Park just launched a capital campaign, titled "A Place to Belong."

 "I think it's phenomenal. Assisting the park district with extraordinary projects is one of their cornerstones and this definitely is an extraordinary project," said Arnold of the foundation. "Frankly, it wouldn't be possible if it wasn't for their involvement."

Established in 2012, the Parks Foundation of Oak Park is a completely separate entity from the park department. 

"The Parks Foundation is not employed by the park district. We are a group of volunteers who are donating our time to help support the park district's amazing programs," said Edward Kerros, board vice president of the Parks Foundation of Oak Park.

"Over many years, the park district has done surveys in the community and we've certainly heard from the community and seen the results of the surveys... and it's just become very clear that the community wants and will support what the community recreation center is hoping to provide," he said.

Kerros believes the community center will benefit all Oak Park residents, including senior citizens and adolescents.

 The foundation believes in the importance of community investment and is accepting donations both large and small.

"Clearly we're looking for some large donations if we're going to get to $18 million dollars to build phase one. However, we're looking for any size donation," Kerros said. "We want the community to know that this is for them and if anybody can give any amount, we feel that's important."

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Reader Comments

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Gregg Kuenster from River Forest CPA  

Posted: January 30th, 2020 4:45 PM

Jeff My family settled this land from Germany in 1830, Our survival is being threatened by property tax bills. Our neighbors pay over $50,000 a year in property tax. They have moved out. No one will buy their home. We have young children that would like to live in the buildings their great grandparents built. What is your solution? Do you understand math?

Jeffrey Smith  

Posted: January 30th, 2020 1:14 PM

The inimitable community-hating tax cranks who populate these comment sections are - of course - already in full cry. I thought they LOVED it when people gave expensive things to Oak Park that they didn't have to pay for. Do they have any idea how much this land would have cost otherwise? Oh, that's right they hate any word that has "com" in it because it implies that we're not just on earth for ourselves. Really, you irritable little complainers should emigrate to Alaska - the lowest taxed state in America. This would put you closer to Russia and a leader you could love even more than Trump, and as far away from us as we could wish.

Tom MacMillan from OAK PARK  

Posted: January 29th, 2020 3:29 PM

We are already paying firms to create "renderings" of the building in great detail. And we are already paying salaries to people who spend a big percentage of their time planning this project. But, oh yeah, we are supposedly not going to be paying for anything. So nothing has been built and they are already lying about the financing.

Dion Ewald from Oak Park  

Posted: January 29th, 2020 1:38 PM

This is INSANE! We need a police station not rec center.

Pati Flannery  

Posted: January 29th, 2020 11:57 AM

,ED of the Park District has a total compensation package of $224k and a lifetime pension. They unfairly compete with private business that bring in taxes to Oak Park; while adding to the pension crisis in IL. From 2000-2017 the OPPD has increased their taxes to the community by 382%. They use "community surveys" to manipulate and influence residents and philanthropist. Every time we agree to their expansion plans we are incurring additional taxes and pensions; despite their completely false claim that the community center will not be paid for or maintained by tax dollars.

Gregg Kuenster from River Forest CPA  

Posted: January 29th, 2020 4:20 AM

BAD IDEA!! Oak Park high end real estate is tanking due to property tax. 15 year mortgages are at 2.75 percent. Property values should be strong because mortgage rates are low and the stock market has doubled recently. Unemployment is low. People have jobs the economy is expanding. Homes over $ 400,000 are not selling because property taxes are 4 percent of valuation. $16,000 on $400,000. A million dollar home costs $40,000 in property tax. Property taxes are scheduled to double in the next 8 to 10 years due to underfunded pensions. Who wants to spend $80,000 a year on property tax? If Oak Park could get this Park project built totally for free, the project adds substantially to property tax. Taxed property is made exempt. The Projects annual operation cost would be between 3 and 5 million dollars = $150 to $300 per year per household plus inflation. We have swimming pools on huge plots of land that are used from June 1 to August 15. 80 days a year. One of the pools is down the street from the high-rises on Lake street and next to the OPRF HS. OP parks is currently paying 2 million a year to operate that pool. This is insanity. Besides the cost, Madison street does not have public transportation nor parking. BAD IDEA! All of the local taxing bodies need to reduce the number of employees and freeze salaries or our homes will become worthless. The Head Administrators of the HS, the Village , the Parks, etcetera ... get paid more if they manage more. If they get paid more ... they pay the managers below them more. Plus 25% for pensions and healthcare for life. Homeowners and renters pick up the bill. Poor people cannot afford to live here. Oh yeah ... Equity means no poor people .. I forgot.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: January 28th, 2020 8:08 PM

Helen Vogel It is interesting that I knew the secret location was going to be on Madison street, when it was not disclosed in the original reporting. This is all about connecting everything along Madison street which is a good idea. If I understand it from previous reporting correctly, then it is disappointing that none of the area include's affordable housing. I suppose affordable housing is meant just or a designated area in Oak Park

Helen Vogel  

Posted: January 28th, 2020 6:30 PM

This is so exciting for the community! It's been a long time coming. Well done to all involved. Steven and Mary Jo- Oak Park thanks you, again! Poppy Vogel

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