Mayor Rory Hoskins proposed turning the Grant-White Intermediate Elementary School into a youth center in September. The thing is, the Park District of Forest Park made its own pitch long before that.
Now Forest Park School District 91 is reviewing both plans along with feedback from the community it solicited earlier this month.
Amid it all, one clear issue is emerging: Youth programming has never been hotter in Forest Park. What’s not clear is what will happen with the school building.
The park district had long planned to build a new indoor space at 7400 block of Harrison Street, across from its main park, in order to expand its day camps and other programs.
“We desperately need space,” said Executive Director Jackie Iovinelli. “We’re maxed out on space.”
The park district operates a 20-acre main park and four pocket parks, but it doesn’t have much indoor space aside from an administration building and two banquet rooms. The opening of the Roos Recreation Center in 2018 wasn’t enough to solve the space problem.
“Within six months, we grew out of it,” Iovinelli said.
This past summer, they had to turn 50 kids away from the day camp because of the limited capacity, she added.
The park district planned to use the new building on Harrison for more programming space and share it with West Suburban Special Recreation Association, which provides activities for people with physical and mental disabilities. WSSRA also needed space and wanted a more central location. So, it was perfect for both of them, Iovinelli said.
The park district estimated that it needed about $10.5 million to build a new facility, but so far has only $5 million on hand, with half coming from a state grant and half coming from its own capital budget.
“We have a plan and expertise and partner and funding,” she said. “We’re ready to go.”
The park district demolished the buildings on Harrison Street last fall, and the land serves as public open space — beautiful open space, which no one expected, Iovinelli said.
Grant-White closed at the end of the 2022 school year as part of the district’s plan to manage declining enrollment – although D91 still uses it for summer programming, afterschool activities, board meetings and events.
Iovinelli said they realized that using Grant-White would allow them to open the facility quicker, save money and provide synergy with the neighboring Remembrance Park, which slated for a major renovation next year. The cleared land on Harrison Street, which has been used as a makeshift open space, would remain an open space, a kind of gift to the community.
Iovinelli said the park district approached the school district early in the year with a proposal to lease Grant-White for 30 years. The grant permitted them to use $2.5 million for renovations of any underused building, and the proposal contained that information. By May, the school asked the park district for a letter of intent. They submitted it and made a presentation before the board in August.
Then in September, Mayor Rory Hoskins presented his own proposal to move some programs from the Mohr Community Center into Grant White. And in the beginning of October, the district held workshops to solicit community feedback. Youth programming was a clear interest among the participants.
“We didn’t realize the mayor was interested at all,” Iovinelli said. “We’re at kind of a crossroads and I feel kind of bad for the school district. We don’t want to put any pressure on them.”
At the August board meeting, member Kyra Tyler asked how much of the demand for summer camp is driven by Forest Park kids.
“I’m really struck by this, because the reason for this predicament is that our enrollment is falling,” she said. “What’s happening there?”
Iovinelli responded that 80% of the kids in the camps are Forest Parkers, and they always prioritize local kids on waiting lists.
Board member Steve Rummel said that he had reservations about the proposal, because it could mean D91 wouldn’t be able to return Grant-White to school use if the enrollment does rebound.
“In my head, it feels like defeat,” he said. “This is something I would struggle with, the people in the community would struggle with, so it’s a story that we’d have to deal with.”
The district did not respond to requests for comment by publication. The next school board meeting is Oct. 12. The issue is expected to be discussed then.