Three area park districts going for gold

Park district officials compare it to winning an Oscar.

And this year there's not just one, but three area park districts in the running for a Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management.

Itasca Park District, Oak Brook Park District and the Fox Valley Park District are finalists for the prestigious award presented by the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration in partnership with the National Recreation and Park Association.

Representatives from all three districts said Wednesday it's a privilege to be a finalist and they're excited about the possibility of winning.

"It's kind of like the Oscars of the park district world," Maryfran Leno, Itasca Park District executive director, said. "So it's a very coveted award."

The Gold Medal Awards program recognizes districts that excel in long-range planning, resource management, volunteerism, environmental stewardship, program development, professional development and agency recognition.

Applicants are divided into seven classes, including five based on population.

Itasca and Oak Brook both are finalists in the class for districts serving populations of less than 30,000. The other finalists are from Middleton, Wisconsin, and Williston, North Dakota.

Oak Brook has been a finalist for the award for each of the past three years but has never won.

Laure Kosey, executive director of the Oak Brook district, said receiving the award would be "national recognition of how we're doing serving our community."

Itasca, meanwhile, already has two gold medals.

This is the first year Itasca was eligible to reapply after winning the award in 2009 and 2003.

Fox Valley also had to wait until this year to make its bid for a third gold medal. The district, which serves 233,000 residents in Aurora, North Aurora and Montgomery, won the award in 2009 and in 1981.

"It's not about just collecting a trophy," Fox Valley Executive Director Nancy McCaul said. "It's about what the award stands for. It means you're providing excellence in parks and recreation in your services and in your management."

The three finalists Fox Valley is competing against are from Arizona, Iowa and Texas.

Jeff Long, Fox Valley's public relations manager, said it's common for Illinois to have multiple finalists each year.

In addition to Itasca, Oak Brook and Fox Valley, a fourth finalist from Illinois is the Park District of Oak Park.

"It just speaks to the high quality of park districts in Illinois," Long said. "It's really a testament to the great job we do providing parks and recreation and services to residents."

A panel of judges will evaluate various aspects of each of the finalists before picking a winner for each class.

"They look at everything from social media to our facilities," Kosey said. "They look at every aspect of the park district."

One point Itasca emphasized in its application is that it's "small but mighty." Despite having only 13 full-time staff members, the district boasts 144 acres of parks, playgrounds, a nature center, a bird sanctuary, a water park, a depot museum and a 40,000-square-foot recreation and fitness center.

"Even if we don't win, we know we're a top agency," Leno said.

The grand prize winners will be announced in September during the 2015 NRPA Annual Conference in Las Vegas.

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