With just a few days left to convince voters they should accept a tax increase so that the park district can expand its facilities, park officials and boosters held their final informational meeting on the proposed expansion before the Feb. 2 vote. About 30 residents attended the discussion, held Jan. 21 at the park district facility on Harrison, and continued to push for details on how the expansion would benefit the community.
The referendum question being presented to Forest Park residents asks whether property owners should pay an additional 12 cents for every $100 of assessed value to support what is estimated to be a $6 million project. The expansion would extend the park’s boundaries to the east, absorbing the so-called Roos property at the corner of Circle and Harrison. That land, approximately 2.5 acres, would be developed to provide additional meeting space as well as a large grassy area surrounded by walking paths and gardens. Architects for the park district have said the original portion of the Roos, which fronts along Harrison, would be saved while the remainder of the vacant and crumbling brick structure would be demolished.
Larry Piekarz, executive director of the parks, emphasized that if the referendum is approved the public would still have opportunities to influence the details of the expansion. Child care, teen programming and events for seniors are some of the options park administrators are considering, said Piekarz, but nothing is set in stone.
“I’m hoping people see that,” Piekarz said.
If the measure is approved, Cathy McDermott, president of the park board, estimated the expansion would be operational in about 18 months.
It was only two months ago that McDermott and her fellow board members voted unanimously to put the proposed tax increase on the Feb. 2 ballot, giving supporters – and detractors – a very short window to get their respective messages out. Seniors, who may be living on a fixed income and are likely to head to the polls, could prove to be a key demographic in what is expected to be a light turnout. Piekarz said he has heard some concerns from retirees regarding the proposal, but overall is “cautiously optimistic.”
Rachell Entler is an organizer behind Friends of the Park, a booster group that supports the measure. Through what has largely been a word-of-mouth campaign, Entler said she has heard from some seniors who are skeptical of a tax increase.
“I definitely have heard, ‘We don’t use the park, why should we vote for this,'” Entler said of senior voters. “Our biggest thing is to look forward. Look to the future.”
In the days before voters have their say, Entler said she expects to plant more yard signs in the community and continue expanding her e-mail chain. Friends of the Park hosted two fundraisers for their cause and raised about $2,000, said Entler, which was “better than expected.”
“I haven’t heard a single person say there’s no reason the park shouldn’t have an interest in this [property],” Entler said.
The proposed 12-cent tax increase would provide the park district with enough revenue to buy the Roos property, according to officials, rehab the site and maintain the new operations. For homeowners, the increase would boost a yearly tax bill of $4,000 by an additional $57.10, according to the park. An annual property tax bill of $6,000 would be increased by roughly $87.
The Roos property is currently held by Amcore Bank, which foreclosed on the site when a condominium and townhouse project came to a screeching halt when the housing market collapsed. McDermott, the park’s board president, confirmed that they are negotiating with Amcore to buy the land, but would not comment on the potential purchase price. Amcore, too, is under federal pressure to raise more cash and dump its liabilities to avoid being taken over.
“I’m just anxious for Feb. 2 to come along,” Piekarz said.