Forest Park elected officials all expressed support for resident Ralph DiFebo’s concept to create a cultural center in the village following his presentation at Monday’s village council meeting.

In his long-anticipated presentation to the Forest Park Village Council and before a large crowd of supporters, DiFebo shared his vision for year-round use by all ages of vacant village-owned property near the Altenheim Retirement Home. Also speaking were two others who have worked on the concept, architect Brian Peterson and financial advisor Gary Frantzen.

Although no formal vote was taken, comments from the commissioners and Mayor Anthony Calderone indicate the project will soon be moving from the concept stage to a formal plan.

In particular, Commissioner Joe Byrnes said, “I think we can make this a reality in the future,” and Commissioner Tom Mannix said, “I’m looking forward to moving forward.”

The 25-minute presentation was the latest in a series DiFebo has given around the village last year and this year.

“People ask me why I’m doing this,” DiFebo said. “There’s no personal gain. This is a great town and I want to make it better.”

The village purchased the property for $3.6 million in 2001, averting a sale to a private developer whose plans were to build townhomes. The property consists of 11 acres north and south of Altenheim and includes a chapel and other outbuildings, all of which are empty. At one point the West Cook YMCA in Oak Park targeted the site for a new facility but negotiations fell through. Fenwick Hugh School in Oak Park also inquired about purchasing the property for a football field and other athletic fields.

DiFebo and Peterson explained that the centerpiece of the concept is a band shell and great lawn for concerts with seating for up to 7,200 on the lawn and on a terraced berm that also would contain sound. A building containing restrooms and concessions, plus rooftop seating, would be near the band shell and another building across the lawn would serve as a pavilion. The property would be primarily open space although a skating rink, walking trails and a home for the farmers market are possible. A limited access roadway would connect the south and west sides and opportunities for art, including sculptures, would be scattered around the property.

DiFebo and Peterson also addressed environmental concerns.

DiFebo said sound concerns would be addressed by the berm, performance curfews and decibel limitations as well as through the use of speaker poles.

Peterson said flooding concerns would be addressed through on-site storm water management, including permeable pavement, rain gardens and infiltration basins. He said they plan to keep all water on site.

DiFebo said initial costs to the village could be offset by selling naming rights, applying for government grants and soliciting donations from corporations and individuals. Frantzen said holding 12 “income events” a year on the property could offset operating expenses, including musical performances, festivals and community events. 

Assuming attendance of between 3,500 and 7,000 per event, Frantzen estimated that revenue from ticket sales, concessions, merchandise and parking would offset expenses from artist fees, salaries, concessions, merchandise, marketing, advertising and insurance and still provide a profit of between $1 million and $1.5 million.

DiFebo said he estimates indirect economic benefit to the village of over $200,000, assuming 100,000 nonresidents spend an average of $20 in the village before or after events, including shopping and dining.   

Mannix and commissioners Rachell Entler and Dan Novak raised questions about the financial aspects of the concept.

Responding to a question from Mannix, DiFebo said the total cost will not be known until after a plan is created and a feasibility study is completed, noting the cost will vary depending on scope of the final plan, comparing it to choosing between building the S.S. Minnow or the Queen Mary. His estimates range from $1.3 million to $15 million; Calderone said he thinks the cost will be “north of $10 million.”

Entler also asked whether the project could be completed in phases, noting the cost estimates are “a big chunk of change.”

DiFebo and Peterson agreed that phasing the project would be possible, with DiFebo recommending the removal of the existing unoccupied buildings on the site and Peterson prioritizing infrastructure improvements, including the roadway, site grading and overall drainage. Peterson also said completion of the music venue should be the initial phase with the proposed skating rink, pavilion and the building housing restrooms and concessions completed in later phases. He noted the later phases offered a good opportunity for financial support from sponsors.

In voicing his support, Calderone suggested that an ad hoc committee be formed to move the project from a concept to a plan, a suggestion that Entler met with an enthusiastic “Absolutely.”

“We need to keep Ralph and company energized,” Calderone said. “Thank you for an excellent job. Now we’ve got to figure out how to get there.”

“I’ll help any way I can going forward,” DiFebo said.

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