Talks are heating up between Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200, and the park districts of Oak Park and River Forest about the prospect of jointly funding a community recreational center that would feature an indoor swimming pool, among many other amenities to be shared by residents in both towns.
The administrative heads of the three taxing bodies appeared before the District 200 school board on May 25 to flesh out what that collaboration would look like. Although the concept is still preliminary and many details are forthcoming, the three governing bodies indicated they've already done some heavy lifting, with the Park District of Oak Park apparently taking the lead.
Park District of Oak Park Executive Director Jan Arnold said conversations with the District 200 school board about collaborating on the construction of a community recreation center date back to last year, when the park district published a feasibility study on the subject.
The feasibility study included focus group meetings with OPRF students, public meetings, questionnaires and feedback from representatives of all six Oak Park taxing bodies. The study found significant support for the idea of a community recreation center, Arnold said.
"There was a positive response [not just for a center that would feature sports] but also for meeting and art spaces," she said, adding that there was a common desire among residents for a space that would have something for people of all ages and diverse personal backgrounds.
Among the 14 amenities that community members identified as priorities for the new center, an indoor pool was at the top of the list.
Michael Sletten, the executive director of the River Forest Park District, said a survey the park district completed in March showed residents were interested in an indoor pool, even though it was kept off of the survey.
"Indoor track was on the top of the list, but about 10 percent of the unsolicited responses came back about an indoor pool," Sletten said.
Arnold said the last three surveys completed by the Park District of Oak Park indicated a desire among residents for indoor walking tracks, an indoor pool and art spaces.
She said that during a District 200 board retreat last July, school board members accepted the recommendations for a community center put forward by the park district, but recommended holding off on any further action until the results of OPRF's facilities referendum came in.
The referendum, which asked voters to approve up to $25 million to partially fund a $44.4 million plan that included a new pool and parking garage, failed by just 28 votes in the Nov. 8, 2016 election.
Had the referendum passed, the district would now be in the process of replacing the two, nearly 90-year-old swimming pools it uses for physical education classes and swimming competitions. Now, with plans to replace the crumbling pools back at square one, the possibility of inter-agency collaboration looks to be more appealing to D200 officials.
But a community recreation pool that would be shared by multiple stakeholders in Oak Park and River Forest wouldn't preclude District 200 from building a pool of its own, albeit one that's much less expensive than the one pitched previously, District 200 Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said.
Pruitt-Adams said that the high school district could still build a smaller pool on campus that it would use for gym classes and aquatics competitions.
"Swimming, for the most part, would remain on campus, particularly competition and PE classes," Pruitt-Adams said. "But there are other opportunities [for students to utilize the recreation center's pool, such as for] practice after hours."
Still, she said, the prospect of a shared community recreation space is attractive, especially after representatives who have been part of the preliminary talks visited a recreational center in Oak Brook.
The visit "opened up their eyes to how space could be utilized," said Pruitt-Adams, who did not go on the visit herself. Oak Brook's facility, she said, features amenities such as portable viewing stands.
"[Oak Brook] gave us the notion that this is doable," she said.
Arnold said that a recreation center in Oak Park could feature three pools, including zero-depth and therapy pools; three courts that could be used for basketball, volleyball, badminton and other sports; a multipurpose gym that could be used for wrestling, batting cages, lacrosse and other activities; a walking track; fitness center; art spaces; childcare spaces; and offices, among other features.
Officials looked at 20 different sites in the area, including the east side of Ridgeland Common (where an outdoor pool is located), and have narrowed in on three different design options that each have a preliminary price tag.
One option ranges from $36 million to $38 million, another option ranges from $41 million to $43 million and a third option ranges from $45 million to $47 million. Officials didn't give any other details about the different design options.
Pruitt-Adams said that each park district and District 200 would each bring its own money to the table, but that the high school could be positioned to take the lead with respect to financing. In December, District 200 will be debt-free and likely has the greatest funding capacity among the three taxing bodies, the Pruitt-Adams said.
Arnold said that, based on the park district's financial models, the two most expensive options are most likely to generate enough revenue to pay for the construction of the center, since they're big enough to include enough revenue-generating amenities.
"The smaller option doesn't give you as many amenities, which limits the amount of programming to take place," Arnold said.
Pruitt-Adams said the newly created Imagine OPRF committee will examine a community recreation center within its larger facilities-related discussions, but that the committee will move the matter "on a faster trajectory than the other work being done."
Imagine OPRF was created last December and is tasked with recommending to the school board a facilities plan "which will support district goals related to equity, current and future academic programming needs, and fiscal responsibility," according to the district's website.
The proposed community recreation center garnered unanimous support among school board members, who applauded the fact that multiple taxing bodies would be collaborating to plan and fund the project.
"I'm very supportive of this. This is the way we should be thinking about investment," said District 200 board member Craig Iseli, before acknowledging the proposal's many logistical challenges, such as how the districts will share the revenue and financial burdens of the project.
Paul Aeschleman, the Park District of Oak Park's board president, said that representatives from all of the taxing bodies in the village expressed support for the proposal when they came together a year ago.
District 200 board President Jackie Moore suggested that board members regularly receive updates, and answers to any questions they may have, about the proposal. The three districts are likely to draft a memo of understanding sometime in the near future.
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