The Park District of Forest Park has won $2.5 million in Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) funding to build a new indoor facility on the south side of Harrison Street – on the condition that it partner with the West Suburban Special Recreation Association (WSSRA) for any future use.

This partnership is something the two organizations have been discussing since last year. WSSRA is looking to move its offices from Franklin Park closer to the center of its service area. During a June 15 meeting of the park district’s Board of Commissioners, park district Executive Director Jackie Iovinelli said the two entities are currently negotiating a memorandum of understanding — something that she hopes to bring to the board for approval in July.

Last year, the park district acquired the buildings at 7400-7412 Harrison St. in order to build a new indoor facility. Iovinelli previously told the Review that the current facilities in the main park across the street simply don’t have room to accommodate the expansion of indoor programs – most notably, the popular day camp. The park district demolished the Pines Restaurant, Oak Leaf Lounge and the Forest Park Foreign Car Repair shop buildings in November 2022, but it is still working on plans for the new facility including its financing.

WSSRA is a collaboration between west suburban park districts and municipalities that pool resources to organize programs and activities for residents with disabilities. The association currently has 13 partners, including the Park District of Forest Park. Their coverage area goes as far north as Harwood Heights, as far west as Bensenville and as far south as Riverside.

In an interview last summer, WSSRA Executive Director Marianne Birko told the Review that, as a matter of policy, it does not own any spaces it uses, preferring to rent  from partner entities. The cooperative has moved offices several times over the years, with stints in Oak Park and Elmwood Park before moving to a Franklin Park School District 84 building at 2915 Maple St. Birko said WSSRA had no issues with that space but that a more centrally located facility would save commuting time for employees traveling to various facilities, and it will save WSSRA money.

Iovinelli said Illinois Senate President Don Harmon (D-39th) helped secure the funding. While his district doesn’t include Forest Park, it includes a significant portion of the WSSRA service area further north, including half of Franklin Park. 

Iovinelli told the Review that the district still needs to raise another $6 million to cover the expected building costs, but the first $2.5 million is an important starting point. She told the board that the park district and WSSRA will look for more grants once the memorandum of understanding is signed.

“The attorney is putting [the memorandum of understanding] together, myself and the director of WSSRA will talk so we can work out all the kinks,” Iovinelli  said. “We’re coming at this as a partnership.”

In the meantime, the park district plans to take down the fencing currently surrounding the now-vacant lots this week, put up concrete barriers to protect the alley behind it and have it as a simple open space for residents to enjoy.

“Anything we put over there is going to be temporary,” Iovinelli said. “The village has some stuff too that we’ll able to borrow, like flower pots.”

Pocket parks progress

During the June 15 meeting, Iovinelli updated the board on the status of the two pocket parks currently being renovated – Reiger Park, 1526 Circle Ave., and Popelka Park, 501 Thomas Ave.

With Reiger Park, the contractors ran into an unexpected issue. The old pavement beneath the playground and other paved areas used petromat paving fabric. Board member Tim Gillian, who previously served as the Forest Park village administrator, said the material was something that used to be “all the rage” because it prevented moisture from seeping in. But the issue is that, once its worn out, it can’t be recycled the way the regular pavement is, and must be disposed of separately, using a specialized method.

Iovinelli said this was something the park district will be prepared for when renovating the Remembrance Park pocket park, which also has petromat. 

“The good news is that the contractor we’ve been working with has been outstanding,” Gillian added. “We’re making sure there’s no copper, there’s no lead.”

The park district currently expects to reopen Reiger Park at the end of August.  

Work on Popelka Park, which is the smaller of the two, is progressing faster. Iovinelli said one interesting thing the contractors discovered as they were digging underneath was what she believed to be the remains of the burned-down church that used to stand at that spot. 

“Everything from the church, the rocks, the bricks – they just buried it [under the park],” she said.

Iovinelli said that she expected the work to wrap up in the first week of July – but the park district was considering holding off a grand opening to avoid conflict with Independence Day.