By John Rice
During this season of giving, Ralph Di Febo is trying to land a big gift for Forest Park. Di Febo has sent a proposal to the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation seeking $50,000 in seed money to fund feasibility studies to build a park and music venue on the Altenheim property. He is vying with other applicants to win the foundation's 2017 Big Idea Competition. The panel is soliciting ideas that would positively impact the area, transform the community and perhaps put a near west suburb on the map as a national leader.
Di Febo sent a proposal to the foundation last year. It didn't win but received an Honorable Mention. This year's proposal carries more weight, as it contains a letter from Mayor Anthony Calderone supporting the idea of building a "mini-Ravinia" on the property. Mayor Calderone is proposing that the village's Civic Center Authority float a bond issue to finance the project. Di Febo noted that this was exactly how River Forest paid for the construction of its community center.
"It's a tried and true plan," he said.
There's another wrinkle about this proposal. Last year, Di Febo partnered with the Forest Park Kiwanis Club to apply for the grant. This year, he is joining forces with the Historical Society of Forest Park, using their 501c3 status to be eligible for the competition. He sees the partnership as a good fit for developing a historic piece of property.
The deadline for filing the proposal was Nov. 15. On Feb. 22, Di Febo and the other applicants will give presentations to the panel at The Wire in Berwyn. If Di Febo wins the grant, he believes the $50,000 could be used for engineering and architectural plans. He has noted a groundswell of support for the project among local residents at the public presentations he has given this year. The plan is also receiving support from village leaders, in particular commissioners Tom Mannix and Joe Byrnes.
Mayor Calderone favors the formation of an ad hoc committee to further study the proposal. Di Febo said it would be important for the committee to hear all sides, particularly from those opposed to the project. He noted that some of the residents of The Grove fear the venue would clog their community with traffic. However, Di Febo is proposing that no concert-goers will be allowed to enter The Grove on Van Buren Street. Only foot traffic would be allowed from Madison Street.
So far, he hasn't gotten any complaints about the impact of live music on the community. He has been consulting with the Talaske Group, the Oak Park-based engineers who designed the sound system for Millennium Park. He believes a delayed music system, with speakers overhead, would mitigate sound affecting nearby residents.
Di Febo has also been consulting with music promoters. They have told him how money could be saved on "big ticket items" like the stage. They suggested a stage could be trucked in, like the Cubs did for their celebration at Grant Park.
Even without a concert venue, the value of property would be improved by the changes Di Febo is proposing. These include demolishing the decrepit buildings on the property, improving access and drainage and constructing a half-mile walking path. The path would have a permeable surface of crushed granite that would be kind to the feet and good for drainage and the environment.
He believes the creation of a park and music venue would not just benefit Forest Park. It would be a boon to Oak Park and other communities that could use access to more green space. With the park being so close to public transportation, it wouldn't create traffic woes. Di Febo noted that he has lived half his life in River Forest and the other half in Forest Park and that it would great for both communities.
Di Febo has so many ideas for the venue buzzing in his head, he wakes up in the middle of the night and writes them down. He was thinking that, aside from public money, they would also do aggressive fundraising from private foundations. He envisioned some grass-roots fundraising as well by allowing residents to purchase memorial bricks to line the walking path.
"Forest Parkers are crazy about bricks," he noted. "Their names would be on the bricks and they would be part of the legacy of the community."
A venue that would put Forest Park on the map as a national leader, he said, would certainly be a lasting legacy.