Oak Park is one step closer to getting a new community recreation center with a $500,000 check from the state of Illinois.
The money comes as a line item in the state's capital budget from the Build Illinois Bond Fund and was advanced by State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-8th).
The contribution is a bit of good news for the Park District of Oak Park, which already has $5 million set aside for the estimated $18 million project.
Bringing the project to fruition could be closer than it appears, however, due to a potential contribution from Oak Park philanthropists Mary Jo and Stephen Schuler.
Mary Jo Schuler said in a telephone interview that they have been in conversations with the park district foundation for about a year on the project.
"We believe that all families should have access to affordable recreational and fitness opportunities in our community, and that opportunity currently doesn't exist," she said.
Schuler said part of the charitable contribution could involve the donation of several parcels of land on Madison Street between Harvey and Highland avenues that her family purchased from the village of Oak Park in 2009.
Those properties are directly across the street from the park district's headquarters. Schuler called it "a logical place for a community recreation center."
"We don't know if that's where it will end up being built; we don't know if the Parks Foundation will achieve a successful capital campaign, but that [site] is a possibility," Schuler said.
Park District of Oak Park Executive Director Jan Arnold said the Oak Park Parks Foundation is "working with a number of different prospects to bring capital to the table for the project. Arnold said the foundation identified three potential sites in a 2016 feasibility study.
"Ultimately, it comes down to can we find community support to create the funds necessary," Arnold said.
Arnold said the project will be completed without raising taxes or going to referendum.
Diane Stanke, a spokeswoman for the park district, said the public has been asking for a community recreation center for years. She said that in community surveys, residents cited the need for more fitness facilities, a walking path, meeting rooms and gymnasiums, among other amenities a recreation center could offer.
Arnold said the facility would be financially self-sustaining because of revenue generated at the facility for some programming.
"There would be free access for certain resources and fees for others," she said.
Arnold emphasized that the facility would provide free after-school opportunities for middle school and high school kids.
"When we say there will be no added tax burden for the residents of Oak Park, the park district board is committed to that," Arnold said.
Arnold thanked Ford for advancing the state's commitment to the project, noting that the money would be returned to the state if the park district is ultimately unable to pull the project together.
She projects the recreation center aim to achieve 75-percent funding commitments before going public with a capital campaign.
"[The Park Foundation's) process right now is in the quiet portion of a capital campaign to determine its viability," Arnold said, noting that it would be "premature" to say the project is certain to happen.
Ford said he was in full support of the project, calling it a "fantastic idea for Oak Park to have the ability to construct a center for the youth and senior citizens and at the same time have a partnership with the private sector, all the while making sure to protect property taxes."
"Hopefully, it's just the first level of support I'm able to provide," Ford said.
Schuler said she believes the project is an opportunity to provide greater equity to the community.
"Free after-school programming is a very exciting, important element of this project, and that also inspired us to become involved," Schuler said, adding that it is important that the recreation center be built in a high-density location, making it accessible to middle school and high school students.
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