A two-day span in the middle of June this year brought violence to the community like we haven’t seen before – possibly ever – with the shooting deaths of John Ollech and Keyana Bates.
Ollech, an 18-year-old high school graduate who was born and raised in Forest Park, was killed in Maywood during the early morning of June 14. According to investigators, Ollech was selling marijuana to two teens and was shot once in the chest when a dispute over money turned violent.
Within 48 hours of Ollech’s death, Bates was killed in Forest Park by a hail of gang-related gunfire that police said was not meant for her. The woman’s alleged killer belongs to a rival gang of Bates’ boyfriend, said police, and he was the intended target. Bates, also 18, lived in Maywood and was a student at the University of Illinois Chicago.
Police in Forest Park and Maywood both made arrests in their respective cases within days of the shootings.
Tim Gillian hired as top administrator
Without a college degree or any experience as a public administrator, Tim Gillian, the lifelong friend and political ally of the mayor, was hired in August to oversee the day-to-day operations of the village. He was chosen ahead of more than 30 other applicants for the job, and his appointment was not without contention. During a nine-month search to find the next administrator – a period during which the position sat vacant – the village council grew increasingly fractured. Gillian was hired by a 3-2 vote, and one minority council member said the decision was dripping with cronyism.
Mayor Anthony Calderone defended his tie-breaking vote to hire former village commissioner Gillian, and said his friend’s ties to the community make him an asset.
“With Tim’s knowledge of the history of this community, our form of government, our finances and local laws, we would be doing a disservice to our residents if we selected anyone but him,” Calderone said in an August statement.
Over the course of a hot day in June, volunteers created the first community garden that Forest Park has seen in decades, giving neighbors a place to grown their own food and meet new people. The project was driven by two women, Gina Thomas and Jessica Rinks, who started pitching their idea in the summer of 2008 to anyone who might listen. They caught the ear of the park district and were given use of an underutilized swath of green space just north of the intersection of Harlem and the Eisenhower Expressway.
On that June day when volunteers were still putting the garden beds together, all but three were claimed by eager growers.
“I want this place to be jam packed with flowers and happy people,” Rinks said that day.
Ultimately, the women hope local schools will use the garden and there are plans to offer classes for adults, too. In 2009, members of the community garden donated portions of their harvest to area food pantries.
Magnet school celebrates its first alums
An emotional and unprecedented celebration was held May 30 when the Proviso Math and Science Academy graduated its first class. The academy opened in 2005 as the township’s first magnet school, and for one year, the 106 students who received their diplomas in 2009 were the only teenagers in the building.
Principal Ed Moyer, who helped open the academy, credited parents and students with making a “leap of faith” in choosing to enroll in a school that had little more than promises to offer applicants. The first-ever alums made a lasting impression on teachers and the community, and amassed more than $5.8 million in college scholarships. Students were pressed to participate in intensive off-campus study programs and would ultimately help raise the profile of an entire district wrestling with decades of poor academic performance.
“You have touched my life in profound ways,” Moyer said during his commencement speech. “Go forth; be respectful. I will never forget you.”
Roos failure prompts referendum
Two years after one of the largest housing developments in the community’s history was approved, a crashing market killed the developer’s ambitious goal of rehabbing the so-called Roos property at the corner of Harrison and Circle.
The year brought enormous losses to residential property developers in general, and in Forest Park that defeat was best summarized by the crumbling brick structure at 7329 Harrison. The site was to become 70 condominiums with another 28 townhouses. Instead, Amcore Bank foreclosed in May and a month later the village sent notice that it intended to pull the construction permits.
But – as the saying goes – when one door closes another opens.
The Park District of Forest Park, located immediately west of the site, quickly asked for a seat at the table to discuss the property’s future. Adding the 2.5-acre Roos parcel to its existing 16-acre campus makes perfect sense, park officials said, and in November it was decided to seek a tax increase and buy the land.
YMCA deal inked, then nixed
It took years of negotiations to pen a deal that would bring a sparkling and sprawling YMCA facility to the community. It took only nine months for the contract to end up in the reject pile.
January of 2009 saw the consummation of tedious and complicated talks between the village council and the West Cook YMCA to sell nearly 8 acres of municipal land for the non-profit’s planned development. With a deal for the land in place, the start of the year brought eight contracts related to the construction, use and financing of the would-be facility. It had taken four years to reach this point.
Then, suddenly, village officials were asked to meet with a YMCA director early on the morning of Sept. 29. With only $3.4 million in donations collected or pledged for the project, the YMCA informed Forest Park it was not prepared to begin work on the $24.3 million project.
A scheduled 2010 closing on the property was cancelled and the YMCA remains in its aging Oak Park facility.
Trage closing marks end of an era
A third-generation, family-owned business fell quickly into the grips of the recession this year, and owners of Trage Bros. appliance store unceremoniously closed the shop as various family members also filed personal bankruptcy claims. Trage Bros. – and the people behind it – was much more to Forest Park than just a retailer.
For decades, inhabitants of the family tree played key roles in local business groups and ultimately helped build Madison Street into the bustling corridor it is today. Customers had long applauded the friendly service and quality appliances that were to be had at Trage Bros.
“As a family business, I would venture to say it’s the last of the longtime family-oriented businesses in town,” Art Jones, a family friend and former chamber of commerce member, said. “It’s a great loss to the community.”
The storefront at 7440 Madison remains dark, and the property was put on the market in September shortly after a judge ordered truckloads of unsold merchandise be returned to suppliers.
State begins oversight of budgets
In a rare move, state education officials took greater control of how Proviso Township High School District 209 manages taxpayer money and instituted a three-member panel of finance gurus. This level of oversight from the Illinois State Board of Education will last a minimum of three years, and is intended to help local administrators achieve solvency.
For years, District 209 has spent itself into multi-million dollar deficits. Student achievement, meanwhile, has fallen to historic lows.
“Really, it is atypical,” Deborah Vespa, a financial administrator said in February of convening an oversight panel. “It’s a last resort for a school district.”
School board members and administrators are currently considering a round of cuts to their 2011 budget as part of the state’s request that the district begin planning for its future. Thus far, the public high schools have cut millions in spending and seen their budgets inch closer to being balanced.
A smattering of local pride
Every community has reasons to puff its collective chest, and this past year added at least a few boastful moments.
While the economy tore municipal budgets in the area to tatters, Forest Park avoided dire circumstances. Whether fortuitous or insightful, the village managed to throw its summer parties and play host to its annual parades amid the doom and gloom of the recession. And no one lost their job. (They can’t say that in Oak Park.)
Firefighters the world over are known for their fearless, tough makeup. But there’s only one Lindsey Hankus, and we’ve got her. In 2009, Hankus completed the Ironman World Championship held in Kona, Hawaii, one of the planet’s most grueling races. The 28-year-old athlete finished the triathlon with a smile on her face, and returned home with a lifetime of bragging rights.
The community’s best source of local news is also the best little newspaper in the state. In 2009, the Forest Park Review earned top honors from the Illinois Press Association and brought home handfuls of awards for strong editorials, sharp reporting, great photos and engaging columnists.
Property management a hot topic
It was a rocky year for the village’s Department of Public Health and Safety, which is charged with issuing building permits and conducting inspections for all manner of construction. Two sitting council members received no sanctions for flouting the department’s regulations, a retailer was forced to install gutters inside their store because the building leaked so badly, and a restaurant owner transformed his plans for an outdoor patio into a full-fledged dining room.
And most of that occurred before the department director’s awkward departure in August was hushed with a payout and a sealed contract.
A stalled effort to more closely regulate so-called “nuisance properties” took a giant step forward this year when the council unanimously adopted its tougher stance. The regulations attempt to curb blight, criminal behavior and unsafe living conditions. Originally, the mayor had hoped to target rental properties with this effort, but the rules will apply to all property owners.a