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updated: 3/27/2012 12:06 AM

Arlington Hts. rethinking park plans after failed vote on bond issue

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  • The back of the park center at Recreation Park in Arlington Heights features a large clock facing the pool. The center was built in the 1930s and is one of the facilities the park district would like to rehabilitate.

       The back of the park center at Recreation Park in Arlington Heights features a large clock facing the pool. The center was built in the 1930s and is one of the facilities the park district would like to rehabilitate.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

 

How does the Arlington Heights Park District determine how much voters will spend, if anything, to renovate four regional parks in the wake of the defeat of the plan to borrow $48 million for the project?

Since last week's loss at the polls, park district officials have promised to rethink the proposal. Among the options are maintaining the parks without attempting to renovate them, trying to renovate the parks one at a time over many years, or putting the $48 million question -- or a smaller one -- on the ballot again.

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The bond issue was rejected by 634 votes, with 5,762 in favor and 6,396 opposed.

Even outspoken opponents agree the parks should be upgraded, but they called for a lower-priced effort.

Local officials praised the outreach park officials made to the community before the election, and one public relations executive said a social media campaign is critical before voters will approve the loan.

The $48 million proposal, reached after public planning meetings, called for new park centers with full-size gymnasiums that would accommodate basketball and other games and provide second-floor walking tracks. Three of the centers were built in 1969, and the fourth is a WPA project from the 1930s.

Synthetic turf was also planned for Frontier Park and three other parks: Centennial, Sunset Meadows, and Melas.

Arlington Heights' fifth regional park, Pioneer, got a new center in 2008 to replace one that dated from 1957. The park district did not need voter approval to fund it.

If the park board decides to adopt a piecemeal program, Camelot Park, 1005 E. Suffield Drive, could go to the top of the list because of a $2.5 million grant the Illinois Department of Natural Resources approved for that center. The district would have to come up with $5 million more, said Executive Director Steve Scholten, who said the grant was figured as part of the budget for the referendum.

Jon Ridler, executive director of the Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce, said the park board must listen to people who supported the $48 million loan, not just try to mollify the people who opposed it.

And as frequently as possible Ridler would remind residents what they are missing because the bond issue was rejected, she said.

"There's a cost to its not passing, too," Ridler said.

He said Scholten and the board made themselves available before the election and must continue to hold meetings and talk with residents and quickly determine the most important renovation issues.

"The vote was anti-tax, rather than, 'We don't want this for our park district,'" Ridler said.

Village President Arlene Mulder suggested it wasn't the size of the loan that caused its defeat as much as people's fears about the economy and sticker shock from recently increased property tax bills. Mulder has no governmental connection with the parks but talks frequently with residents.

"The bond issue was not successful, but it wasn't overwhelmingly turned down," Mulder said. "That means that the citizens appreciate all that the parks offer."

One suggestion that may be revisited is the idea of having fewer regional parks in favor of a few "mega centers." Residents were asked about that in a 2009 survey, but the majority said they prefer to keep the five centers.

Mulder said she couldn't say whether the need for five regional parks has run its course, but as a mother she appreciated that older children could ride their bikes to swimming lessons rather than needing a parent to drive them there.

Kathy Schaeffer, whose Chicago public relations firm works on public affairs issues, comes out in favor of polling and focus groups to determine exactly what residents want.

When the issue is on the ballot, a group of supporters needs to build a campaign and push the project on social media, she said. This would include a get-out-the vote effort just like in a political campaign.

"It's harder to build support for something; it's easier to protest," said Schaeffer, who lived in Arlington Heights during high school and college. "People in Arlington Heights might take their great parks for granted."

At present, the park district could borrow up to $11 million, which would be roughly enough to build one center. However, that could not be repeated for 25 years.

Perhaps another poll would give an idea of how much taxpayers are willing to pay, said Scholten, but polling is expensive. He also noted staff and board members talk to a lot of people, receive emails and phone calls, and "have a pretty good pulse" of the community.

A lot of data have been collected, and it can be analyzed and then decisions made, Scholten said.

Objections seemed to be to the timing of a bond issue and resulting tax increase during a bad economy, said Scholten, but the board thought the lower construction costs and interest rates would outweigh those disadvantages.

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