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Challenged Southland park districts grateful for grants

MokenPark District is seeking grant funds build $4.7 milliadditiits recreatifitness center LaPorte Road.  |  Susan DeMar Lafferty~Sun-Times Media

Mokena Park District is seeking grant funds to build a $4.7 million addition to its recreation and fitness center on LaPorte Road. | Susan DeMar Lafferty~Sun-Times Media

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Wishes granted

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources began its Open Space Land Acquisition Development grant program in 1986 and has provided nearly $400 million for more than 1,680 park projects in Illinois. The program is funded through the real estate transfer tax, which is part of every property sale in Illinois.

Those receiving an OSLAD grant in April include:

Village of Calumet Park: $266,000 for its Veterans Park Development Project.

Chicago Heights Park District: $400,000 for Euclid Park, at Euclid and Main Street.

Cook County Forest Preserve District: $904,000 for land acquisition for a 29-acre parcel known as Villa Santa Maria at the Tinley Creek Preserve at Oak Forest Avenue and 167th Street, near Tinley Park. The forest preserve district is in negotiations with the owner.

Hickory Hills Park District: $390,300 for Kasey Meadow Park, 8047 W. 91st Place, for renovation of two playgrounds, installation of a splash pad, walking trail, an outdoor fitness area, handicapped access to the ball fields, a retaining wall for spectator seating, native plantings.

Homewood-Flossmoor Park District: $400,000 to improve Dolphin Lake Park.

Manhattan Park District: $216,500 for improvements to Central Park, at Wabash and McClure Avenue.

Mokena Park District: $400,000 to develop the new Prairie Ridge Park tennis court, pickleball court, sand volleyball, gazebo, playground, bean bags court, multipurpose turf field, and room for future basketball and baseball fields.

Oak Lawn Park District: $400,000 for Worthbrook Park, an 8-acre site at 89th Street and Ridgeland Avenue, with a new skate park, three triple halfcourts for basketball, splash pad, picnic area, bean bags, walking trail and two rain gardens.

Tinley Park Park District: $400,000 to buy six acres at 163rd Street and Oak Park Avenue.

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Updated: May 15, 2014 6:13AM



Hiking trails, fishing piers, dog parks and even a pickleball court are all new amenities coming soon to local parks.

But finding ways to fund these improvements isn’t always fun and games.

Park districts rely heavily on property tax revenue and program fees for their operations, but that leaves little play in the budget for new park equipment. The housing boom that once created a steady revenue stream from permit fees has dropped along with property values, causing park officials to rely on grants and other creative methods to revamp older parks and create new amenities.

Park officials are constantly competing for grant dollars to acquire more land and offer more programs.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources — one of the largest grant-funding sources — recently announced the latest recipients of $16.5 million in its Open Space Land Acquisition Development (OSLAD) grant program.

A grant will enable the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District — which in 2010 closed its pool at Dolphin Lake at 183rd Street and Governors Highway — to regrade the site and install new features to attract people to the lake.

Another will help the Tinley Park Park District acquire a six-acre site it has been leasing for decades from St. Boniface Church at 163rd Street and Oak Park Avenue, and a grant also will allow the Mokena Park District to develop its new 5.5-acre Prairie Ridge Park.

The Oak Lawn Park District will use its $400,000 grant to replace its skate park at Worthbrook Park and add a splash pad, bean bag court, walking trails and rain gardens.

“We are so very lucky,” Oak Lawn Park District director Maddie Kelly said of the $1.5 million in grants it has received since 2000. “I do not know what Oak Lawn would be like without DNR grants.

“Without them, our parks would only have a couple of benches and a playground. OSLAD helps us go above and beyond what we can do on our own. We have premier parks because of them,” Kelly said.

Park districts must be able to match the amount of the grants, which aren’t always easy to obtain.

Out of 80 applicants requesting a total of $26 million in this latest round of OSLAD grants, the DNR funded 46 projects for $16.5 million.

The Homewood-Flossmoor Park District was “very excited” to get $400,000 to help pay for the estimated $925,000 in improvements to Dolphin Lake Park, director Debbie Kopas said.

It will go a long way toward adding an amphitheater, pavilion, drinking fountain, fishing station, hiking trails, a small playground and bioswales to keep the lake clean.

The second phase of the Dolphin Lake Park project — to renovate the existing building and add fishing piers all around the lake — will require a Parks and Recreation Construction (PARC) grant, for which the district already has applied, Kopas said.

Finding the funds is “really difficult,” Kopas said, especially since they must also keep up with aging facilities.

New plumbing and a new roof are not visible to the public and aren’t much fun, but they are just as necessary, she said.

Park officials typically work on multiple projects so they are prepared when funding becomes available.

While making plans to install courts for tennis, pickleball, volleyball and bean bags at its new Prairie Ridge Park, Mokena also wants to expand The Oaks Recreation Center and begin $2 million in improvements at Yunker Farm.

It will apply for a PARC grant for a 20,000-square-foot, $4.7 million addition to its rec center, but to come up with its share of funds, officials may consider a referendum in November.

The park district soon will retire bonds it used to buy the 115-acre farm and build its recreation center, which would reduce the property tax by about $50 a year for the owner of a $300,000 home, park director Jim Romanek said. It may ask voters for permission to keep the additional amount in the tax levy to make these improvements.

A citizens input group will begin meeting Tuesday and will have at least three public meetings to discuss a course of action.

The New Lenox Community Park District had a similar referendum on the March primary ballot — and lost. It is retiring its bonds from the construction of the Sanctuary Golf Course and could reduce the tax levy by 6 cents per $100 of equalized assessed valuation — about $50 a year for the owner of a $300,000 home.

The board will decide by July whether there will be a second referendum in November.

When the golf course was built, officials hoped it would generate revenue for the park district, but so far it is just covering its own costs, park district spokeswoman Lauren Lotz said.

The staff is applying for a PARC grant, but if a referendum fails again in November, the application will be pulled because the park district will not have the necessary matching funds, she said.

Still, a grant is a grant no matter how small, and every little bit helps.

According to Lotz, the park district received a few $5,000 grants from the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, enabling it to host a kids fishing derby, and another $4,000 grant from the Arthritis Foundation for a seniors exercise program.

The New Lenox Friends of the Park Foundation raises money for program equipment, she said.

The park district also worked out a land swap with the village of New Lenox — giving the land to build a new police station and getting the current police station in return.

To meet one of the biggest demands from the public — a dog park — the Tinley Park Park District teamed up with Orland Township and acquired a 10-acre parcel at 182nd Street and 84th Avenue, park director John Curran said. Work is to begin soon to fence in seven areas to create three dog parks — one for small dogs and one for larger dogs. The third area would be used on a rotating basis when the other parks have to be closed down to allow grass to regrow.

Curran said. The dog park, which could open this fall, will have a parking lot, a shelter area and a key card system for access.

Its recent $400,000 OSLAD grant is for land acquisition only, and it may apply for another grant to make further improvements to the site, Curran said. Before the park district does that, it will meet with neighbors to decide what features they would like in the park.

“It’s harder (to make improvements) than it was a few years ago. These grants really help,” Curran said.



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