The Altenheim property has been on the village’s books for nearly a decade, because officials have been unable to secure a buyer. Fenwick is a prospective purchaser, but if that interests wanes, we might continue to hang onto it.  

I was camping at Point Beach State Forest, south of Green Bay, Wisconsin, two weekends ago.  The park has 2,903 acres of wooded land, creeks and sloughs; and I’ve seen deer, raccoons, great blue herons and eagles there.  Visitors can walk along the beach for six miles without seeing a building or a road; it’s a place that has restored my soul since my earliest visits as a kid.

All of that beauty exists – free of water parks, souvenir shops and fast food chains – because Wisconsin’s state lawmakers passed legislation to preserve the area in 1938. If they had not, this natural treasure might have been lost forever.

One of the reasons Chicago’s lakefront is virtually free of commercial development – with the glaring exception of Navy Pier – is because, over a hundred years ago, the famous architect Daniel Burnham had a vision, which he articulated:  “First in importance [to the city] is the shore of Lake Michigan. It should be treated as park space to the greatest possible extent. The lakefront by right belongs to the people… not a foot of its shores should be appropriated to the exclusion of the people.”

Then, politicians caught the vision and enacted legislation that has kept much of that space “free and clear” of development to this day. If Chicago’s pols had not done that, the lakeshore might have been lost to the public forever.

The Grand Canyon is a natural wonder and its beauty remains intact thanks to Congress declaring it a National Park in 1919; this prevented any development from ever occurring on-site. If you have ever seen director Ken Burns’ films on the National Parks, you’re probably aware that powerful interests lobbied Congress in an attempt to prevent the preservation of some of the country’s natural wonders; many of which are now National Parks. If Congress had not acted as boldly as it did, The Grand Canyon might look something like Wisconsin Dells today.

As for the Altenheim, Village Finance Director Judy Kovacs said that interest and principle payments will cost the village $301,130 this year. If Forest Park has 14,000 residents – there are actually slightly more, but we’ll round down to get a nice, even number – it means that each of us is paying about $21.51, annually, to hang onto the property.

Village Administrator Tim Gillian repeated what many of you already know: that officials are in talks with Fenwick representatives to sell the school part of the property.  But, he was quick to add, “The Village would never consider selling the picnic grove area in front of the facility, as we believe it to be a treasure for Forest Park.”

While I applaud the village’s commitment to retaining the picnic grove, I urge the council to take the necessary steps to keep the whole parcel; because, once it’s sold, we lose control.  Fenwick appears to want to maintain the area’s green space, as it intends to use the area for athletic fields; but what if it finds itself in a financial squeeze and ends up selling to, say, residential developers? That green space will quickly turn to shades of asphalt black and cement white.

Selling the property might be “penny wise,” in that it might help generate a small and fleeting revenue surge, but it is “pound foolish” because we’d lose control of that precious green space.

Have empathy for our elected decision-makers; they want to get elected next time around.  But, tell them you will only vote for them if they keep the whole Altenheim property on the books. It’s not that expensive.

– Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.