Lake County's Lawlor, Maine look ahead to big projects

Even as the political divides in Washington and Springfield worsen, no such partisan enmity infects the Lake County Board or the Lake County Forest Preserve District board.

The leaders of both panels were re-elected with unanimous and enthusiastic bipartisan support last week. Vernon Hills Republican Aaron Lawlor was awarded a second 2-year term as chairman of the county board, while Lincolnshire Republican Ann B. Maine was given a third term as the forest board's president.

Both panels are represented by the same 21 members - 14 Republicans and 7 Democrats. But it's been many years since either board was divided along party lines.

"We really try to say, 'What is our job?'" Maine told the Daily Herald. "I think it really is just a lot of common sense and not being pulled to the side, frankly, by issues over which we have no control, and by staying focused and staying fiscally responsible."

And the county benefits. In the last two years, significant road projects have been undertaken, key forest preserve land was acquired and a variety of public programs launched through both agencies.

"The Lake County Board's culture is not one of playing gotcha politics," Lawlor said. "We're about good government and good fiscal management."

Similar goals

Maine and Lawlor talked about the issues facing the boards, their accomplishments and their plans for the next two years.

They have worked together more than any chairman and president in recent memory. Both want Lake County to be home to a growing workforce. Both want to see local recreational opportunities expand and for residents to take advantage of those opportunities.

And both have long-term visions for the region that stretch beyond any single issue.

"What I've learned during my two years as chairman is, if we want a thriving Lake County, we can't just focus on health care or infrastructure or open space or education or workforce development," Lawlor said. "We have to look at it all."

The chairmanship is a full-time job for Lawlor, 32, who's been a commissioner since 2009. He previously worked on Mark Kirk's congressional staff and served on the Cook Memorial Public Library District board.

Lawlor cited the county's recent push to repair and improve its roads - to the tune of $170 million during the 2014 fiscal year - as the biggest accomplishment of his first term as chairman.

"And a big part of that has been the progress we're making on Route 53," he said.

Once seen as something of a transportation unicorn, the much-discussed but never-constructed Route 53 extension into Lake County is now closer to becoming a reality than ever before, thanks to a unified front from municipal and county leaders, local businesses and other groups.

"This is what we call our last, best chance at advancing Route 53," Lawlor said.

Lawlor also touted road improvement projects at Rollins Road and Route 83 in Round Lake Beach and at Fairfield Road and Route 176 near Wauconda as successes.

But Route 53 is the brass ring. If the four-lane boulevard is built, Lawlor said he believes it will lead to a new economic corridor in the county, a business boom.

Financial models predict cars will be on the road by 2020. Lawlor said he's "cautiously optimistic" it will happen.

A 100-year plan

Maine shares Lawlor's big-picture outlook when it comes to county and forest district issues. It's why she's so excited about the 100-Year Vision, a long-term plan the forest board adopted last year.

Resembling a philosophical manifesto more than a to-do list of specific projects, the plan predicts the 22nd century forest district will be a model of fiscal responsibility, a partner with other agencies on environmental projects and an agency that promotes active and healthy living by providing convenient access to recreational opportunities.

"What's going to happen in these next 100 years? We have never had a vision like that," she said.

Maine, 55, has been the forest board's president since 2010. A senior lecturer at Lake Forest College, she was elected to county office in 2002 after a five-year stint as a Lincolnshire trustee.

When asked to identify the forest district's biggest accomplishment of the past two years, Maine chose a 4.4-acre land buy near Lincolnshire that will allow the 31-mile Des Plaines River Trail to be completed.

The trail stretches from Lake-Cook Road to just south of the Wisconsin state line and connects 12 forest preserves. The final 1,500-foot link, to be built in spring 2015, will culminate a project that began six decades ago.

"(It's) small but mighty." Maine said.

'Come out and play'

Maine's mission for her third term is to begin making the goals of the 100-Year Vision a reality. A key part of that is getting people to put down their tablets and smartphones and go outside.

"We know that people, especially children, who are out of doors have better attention spans and do better in school and (have) less stress," Maine said. "With the changing times, how do we get those kids who are used to playing games online to come outside? How do we get them to come out and play?"

Complicating that mission is the notion that many modern parents didn't have outdoor experiences as kids.

"Now you're getting into a second generation who don't necessarily have that connection and engagement," Maine said. "Once they do have that opportunity, I think they get hooked. But we just need to make sure they get out there."

Not surprisingly, Lawlor and Maine are of one mind on this. Both insist the forest preserves are an important part of what makes Lake County special.

"It's a healthy population," Lawlor said. "It's investing in infrastructure and roads. It's making sure that we have an education pipeline and a workforce that our employers need. I want to be able to say when I am much older than I am now that I made a difference in keeping Lake County a great place to live, work and visit."

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