Stating that it was premature to hold a public meeting before finalizing and examining all proposed properties, Scott Gaalaas, president and CEO of the West Cook YMCA in Oak Park, cancelled the Feb. 17 meeting with community members at the Forest Park Public Library.
The meeting, designed to present to Forest Park residents what a new Y facility would look like, was co-hosted by Citizens Unite in Forest Park (CUinFP) and the Forest Park Public Library and was to be held at the library at 7 p.m.
Calling the situation “bizarre,” Steve Backman of CUinFP said he was surprised to hear of the cancellation, adding that he received less than 48 hours notice.
“When I made this date with Gaalaas back in January, he sounded so upbeat and outgoing”and then when they cancelled on Tuesday night, it was a phone message cancel,” Backman said. “I confronted him the next day in his office. I was there for an hour and five minutes, and he talked in circles for 45 minutes before he decided on an answer for why they weren’t coming. Two days later I get this e-mail with a formal apology from the organization.”
Backman said the Y has disappointed several residents, including public officials who wanted to find out more about the YMCA’s plans. He added that the Y has negotiated almost exclusively with Mayor Anthony Calderone, leaving residents and other board members out of the loop.
For his part, Calderone said any allegation that he has kept anyone out of the loop is “ridiculous.”
“The commissioners have been involved because this involves the sale of property owned by the village,” Calderone said. “Scott Gaalaas and the team have been involved in closed session meetings with the entire council.”
Commissioner Patrick Doolin agreed.
“I am not going to read anything into that,” Doolin said. “The Mayor is the point person for those types of discussions. Any final action is certainly subject to council approval, and there are meetings that have to take place.”
Negotiations “are in a preliminary stage,” Doolin said. “The mayor has a role that the rest of us do not have. This will evolve to the point where the council as a whole will be involved.”
Like Doolin, Commissioner Terry Steinbach said she was surprised to hear of the meeting cancellation but had not planned to attend.
“I am definitely for the YMCA choosing Forest Park. I think that would be a tremendous asset to our village,” Steinbach said. “They presented to us in a closed session at one point. I have had no further information since our initial closed-door meeting in the fall. It would have been nice if they were going to say something new at the cancelled meeting.”
Gaalaas confirmed that Forest Park is still the primary option for the YMCA’s relocation committee and that it is an attractive piece of land for the Y.
“Most of it is vacant. It is the largest parcel we are examining, and we’d like to get as much land as we can,” Gaalaas said.
He added that the Y is looking for land that must be “north of the expressway, east of the Des Plaines River, west of Austin Avenue and in River Forest, Forest Park or Oak Park, as this is the prime surface area from which 70-80 percent of clients come.”
He said the Y is in the process of having their existing property in Oak Park appraised and will be willing to meet with Forest Park residents at some point later on in the process.
“I think fundamentally they are pretty certain about wanting to come to Forest Park,” Calderone said. “Based on some of the comment, it seems there is a feeling or an anticipation level that the deal is done. We are far from that. This is a large proposal, and this is a process that takes time”time on the part of the village and time on the part of the YMCA.
“We cannot dictate to them how quick they need to move along. The YMCA needs to move along at their own pace. Their board of directors needs to decide how they want to do it, when they want to do it, and where they want to do it,” Calderone said.
Calderone also questioned the timeliness of the cancelled meeting.
“I would question the merits of the CUinFP hosting the meeting at this stage. It is very preliminary. There will be a point where it will be appropriate, but it may not be at this time,” Calderone said.
Backman, who went to the library last Thursday to turn people away, said several Oak Park residents came to the meeting and told him the “48-hour cancellation was par for the course.”
“The expansion of the Y in Oak Park has been a heated, contentious issue for a number of years and apparently [according to some Oak Park residents critical of the Y] the YMCA and the CEO are not the best individuals to be doing business with,” Backman said.
“You think an organization with the word Christian in its title would be open and transparent and their track record with the Village of Oak Park has been exactly the opposite,” Backman said.
Backman added that the Oak Park residents, who have been consistent critics, told him the Y is not financially stable and has a history of canceling meetings with community members.
The Y has continued to talk with Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone about the Altenheim property, but official negotiations haven’t taken place and no site-specific plans have been drafted, Gaalaas said in last week’s FOREST PARK REVIEW.
Doolin said he still hopes the Y will have an open meeting in Forest Park.
“I want to see the residents of this town support the YMCA and come out. It is as close to a public use as I think we could get on that property. I would look forward to sitting in an audience and being able to listen to the residents’ comments and get some public input,” Doolin said, adding that “we haven’t gotten to the point where it is a done deal.”