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Article updated: 1/10/2013 11:38 AM

$2.5 million grant puts Arlington Heights Park District in a bind

By Melissa Silverberg

Arlington Heights Park District officials plan to question legislators in Springfield about redirecting a $2.5 million state grant as they prepare for the expense of renovating several parks with a tight budget in the wake of two failed referendums last year.

The park district was awarded the $2.5 million grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to help pay for $7.8 million in proposed renovations at Camelot Park. District officials hoped to fund the rest of the work through a proposed $39 million bond issue.

That bond issue, however, was rejected by voters in November, as was a $48 million referendum in March, and now officials are examining whether there might be a better use for the $2.5 million. But first, they must determine whether they can use that money for anything other than the Camelot project.

Without the referendum funding, the park district can't afford to redo all parks at once as officials hoped. Several park board commissioners said that if they only have the money to renovate one park, they would rather it be a more centrally located facility, such as Olympic Indoor Aquatic Center, rather than Camelot, which sits on the far north side of the district.

Plans for other parks, such as Frontier or Recreation, are too expensive without referendum funds, said park board President Maryfran Leno.

District Executive Director Steve Scholten said he has spoken with the grant administrator at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and been told that the grant money cannot be redirected to a project other than Camelot, but board members say they want to appeal to state legislators.

Leno and Scholten said they would both be willing to make a trip to Springfield to lobby lawmakers before the next park board meeting on Jan. 22.

"None of us figured that Camelot was our first choice, but I don't want to turn down the money," said Commissioner Robert Whisler.

If the park district accepts the grant, work on Camelot Park must be substantially completed by June 30, 2014, meaning the project would need to start later this year, Scholten said.

The $5 million needed to pay for the rest of the project would have to come in the form of a debt certificate, said Eric Anderson with BMO Capital Markets who was advising the park district. If the park district does this project, they won't be able to do another large project for at least 10-15 years without a successful referendum, he added.

Rejecting the grant money also comes at a cost. Scholten said that if the park district turns down the money they won't be eligible to apply for a similar grant for another two years, with no guarantee that it would be awarded.

"I feel like we're playing this chess game and there's no good answers right now," Leno said.

One resident who spoke at a recent park board meeting said she thought the board should turn down the grant money because it wouldn't be fair to renovate a park so far north.

"It's pitting one neighborhood against another," said Mary Vickers.

One way to make the project cheaper would be to remove the planned elevated walking track in the gym, which would require making the building two stories and adding an elevator. Officials suggested instead enlarging the gym and putting a walking track on the first floor.

Resident Bob Ruffato said he would be in favor of the Camelot plan without the elevated walkway.

"While the community rejected two referendums, everyone knows it was close," he said. "Many of us that voted against the plan would have voted "yes" for something more modest. While some might question the wisdom of Illinois offering grants, few of us would refuse one."

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