Youth Campus “Plan” Has More Questions Than Answers


We have been critical of both the Park Ridge Recreation and Park District and a small group of greedy and petty senior citizens regarding a dispute over a $330,000 bequest to the “Park Ridge Senior Center” by former Senior Center member Betty Kemnitz.

Frankly, the way that situation has been mishandled raises concerns about the District’s overall stewardship ability, on a number of levels.  And the District’s continued bungling of the situation and the related litigation in the Circuit Court of Cook County is troubling and discouraging.

That’s why we are cautious in reacting to the Park District’s recently-announced intention to acquire a portion of the Park Ridge Youth Campus, which has shut down its operations and is deciding whether or not to sell its approximately 11 acres of prime “country club” real estate between Prospect and Washington, just south of Oakton.

We’re not saying the District’s acquisition of around 60% of the Youth Campus’ acreage, or partnering with developer Marc Elliott, is a bad idea.  It’s just that there are far too many unanswered questions for us to sign onto, or oppose, the project at this early stage.  

But we like the idea of this kind of public/private venture – where neither the Park District nor Elliott seem to have the financial wherewithal to take on the whole project all alone – especially if such a venture is done with the hard-eyed analysis and hard-nosed bargaining that was so sorely lacking in the City’s public/private Uptown Redevelopment boondoggle, which allowed private developer PRC Partners to walk off with a reportedly tidy profit while the City is approximately $6 million in the hole and still digging.

As the Youth Campus plan is presently being described, the District will go to referendum to authorize the issuance of bonds for the multi-millions of dollars the acquisition and re-purposing of the land for District purposes is expected to cost.  Elliott, who already owns 3 lots at the northeast end of the Youth Campus that created quite a stir when he tried to turn them into group homes, plans to take the remaining 40% at the southernmost half of the property for the construction of single family homes.

Clearly, the price of the land will be a big issue for the District, as it will affect how much in bonds the District will have to issue, and the amount of the corresponding annual debt service that will siphon already scarce funds away from the District’s established facilities and programs. 

Another big issue will be the viability of the District’s plan, which currently includes using some of the existing buildings for the District’s central offices and various programming.  Until the District produces a sound and detailed business plan, every taxpayer should have a serious concern for whether this is an economically realistic and sustainable venture, or just an opportunistic scheme emerging solely because this land has suddenly become available.

For the District to have even a snowball’s chance of passing this kind of referendum, it will need to make a convincing case not only for the bonded debt but also for keeping the Park District’s 60% of that property off the property tax rolls in perpetuity. 

We also question the wisdom of the District’s “jumping into bed” with one specific developer – Elliott – rather than inviting offers from the entire development community, especially given that the District is in the catbird seat due to its eminent domain power: i.e., its legal right to take the property for a legitimate public purpose – in this case, a public park and recreational facility – at its fair market value. 

To our knowledge, the Park District has done nothing since 1994 to acquire any significant acreage for park and recreation purposes, so clearly it doesn’t need that Youth Campus property. 

The real question will be whether the Park District can convince the voters that their want of that property is reason enough to pass the referendum.

To read or post comments, click on title.

23 comments so far

Given that the bungling was in full swing when you were Park Board President and that the prior and current Boards as well as current staff have taken what can only be described as endless abuse for trying to address a problem you didn’t even notice (I assume, or you would have rushed in and fixed it forth-frickin’-with) until you were safely out of the gunner’s sights. So now, with the benefit of Monday morning quarterbacking, your leitmotif and modus operandus, tell the Board how you would solve the current “bungling” and improve their “stewardship” in re the Senior Center debacle.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This editor must certainly be held accountable to the residents for what went on at the Park District during his tenure from 1997 to 2005, and especially while he was the Board president from April 2004-May 2005. But exactly what actually was brought to his or the full Board’s attention during that time period is unclear.

Ken Butterly’s recent FOIA to the PRRPD yielded what are supposed to be ALL of the Senior Center-related agreements between Seniors Inc./SSI and the PRRPD, which consist of a “Letter of Agreement” dated November 20, 1980, for the period 11/24/80-11/24/83, 1 “stage addition” agreement, and 10 “extension”-type agreements, the last dated 11/17/05 for the period 1/1/06 through 12/31/10.

Of those 12 agreements, only the “stage agreement” (dated 1/21/98) and 1 extension agreement (dated 12/31/00) were approved and/or executed during this editor’s 8-year tenure on the Board (May 1997 through April 2005). The former, signed by president Gary Somerman and secretary Helen Schaeffer, does not recite that it was authorized by any Park Board approval; while the latter, signed by president Gail Wilkening and secretary Lauren Streff, recites Park Board approval at its meetings on 10/19/00 and 11/15/00, but the Park District reports that the minutes for those two meetings contain nothing about any Senior Center contract. This editor is attempting to get copies of those minutes to confirm that report, but whether either of those matters actually was brought before the Board remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, “with the benefit of Monday morning quarterbacking,” now that Seniors Inc. has rejected the PRRPD’s extremely reasonable settlement offer, the PRRPD should aggressively litigate what appears to be its superior right, by virtue of its owner ship and operation of the Senior Center to Ms. Kemnitz’s bequest to the “Park Ridge Senior Center.” And the PRRPD should let the public know how a few handfuls of greedy geezers are trying to rip-off the District’s taxpayers for Kemnitz’s $330K bequest AFTER they’ve already ripped off the taxpayers for $1 million in Senior Center subsidies over the last 6-7 years so that they can have their semi-private clubhouse for only $45/year in annual dues.

And that’s just for starters.

The Park District is one more entity in Park Ridge that, as a relative newcomer, leaves me scratching my head. We seem to be sorely lacking in terms of amenities compared to other suburbs yet our taxes are comparable as well as the fees we are expected to pay for programs and resources like the Community Center.

On the aquatic front, a personal pet peeve, Oakton pool was literally run into the ground and I read and hear that the remaining pools, including the relatively new one at the Community Center, require significant improvements. Why do we (they) let stuff deteriorate so badly? The prevailing attitude seems to be anything but proactive.

I love the idea of the PRPD acquiring Youth Campus land and buildings because the potential seems tremendous. More green space would be wonderful and additional, high quality programming would be welcomed. But based on what little I know and the less than stellar quality of much of what already exists, I’m skeptical of it working it out in our favor.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since you don’t say where you came from, we can’t opine on why you’re getting less Park District amenities here for the same amount of taxes and fees you paid elsewhere. But we’re guessing it’s from a place that has (a) a lot larger commerical and/or industrial tax base; and/or (b) a lot less density and, therefore, more readily available park land; and/or (c) politicians and/or bureaucrats that are running big deficits.

Oakton pool was allowed to deteriorate for several years because the Park Board didn’t have the guts to close it when it was losing almost $100K/year because there’s no market for stand-alone Olympic-sized lap pools, and outdoor public pools in this latitude/climate are almost always big money losers. Some folks wanted to replace Centennial Pools with a water park 15 years ago, but the voters shot it down. But, lo and behold, those allegedly failing pools gave the community another 15 years of relatively inexpensive use. We’d call that good management, but maybe that’s not as important to you as “proactive” management.

WE “love the idea of the PRPD acquiring Youth Campus land and buildings,” but we’re not too sure about just how “tremendous” is “the potential.” Of course “[m]ore green space would be wonderful,” but somebody’s got to pay for it. The same goes for all that “additional, high quality programming.”

And, excuse us if we’re wrong, but you don’t sound like someone whose interest in paying matches your interest in using.

“And, excuse us if we’re wrong, but you don’t sound like someone whose interest in paying matches your interest in using.”

You are, in fact, wrong. We do use plenty of facilities and register for numerous programs each year and pay with no complaints. I was just observing what our dollars get in comparison to a couple other ‘burbs I’m familiar with.

We’re fine with Hinkley and Centennial pools and use them frequently in the summer.

I do, however, see some potential lost revenue from non-residents…for example a common practice in Chicago where we previously lived (your guess was pretty far off the mark) was to buy passes to suburban pools for the summer (don’t get me started on quality there, but they are free to residents, a good example of getting what you pay for). Lincolnwood and Wilmette are popular choices. Park Ridge is not. I’m not complaining about that, however. I’m not sure how happy I’d be with the seasonal invasion, even if it did add something to the coffers.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you were “just observing what our dollars get in comparison to a couple other ‘burbs I’m familiar with,” then you ARE beefing about the cost of PRRPD programs.

“Revenues” don’t mean jack without considering expenses. The bankruptcy courts are filled with businesses generating decent revenues.

If Chicago is your former home, then we were right on two of three guesses: “(a) a lot larger commerical and/or industrial tax base” and (c) politicians and/or bureaucrats that are running big deficits.” And had we gone for “(d) run by crooks and sociopaths,” we could have been batting a whopping .750!

You are correct that there is not enough information available to sign on to or oppose the Park District plan. The plan hasn’t been presented yet.

Also, if I understand the idea of referendum bonds, the capital expense and debt service is fully funded by the taxes allowed by a yes vote on the referendum. Those expenses don’t get shoehorned into the existing budget. So we should not have worry if the current amenities would suffer due to the debt service.

The Park District should make certain that ongoing maintenance and operating expenses for the new property are more than fully covered by new programming fees made possible by the new space and the space that would be opened up at Maine Park by moving the admins to the new space. If they do that correctly, the budget shouldn’t get stretched.

EDITOR’S NOTE: It sounds like you’re talking about NON-referendum bonds, which we understand get a separate levy.

Back to the Youth Campus plan…I read that the board is entertaining other possibilities but won’t disclose what they are. That seems a bit suspect and makes me wonder if, as rumored, they’ve already got their own plan in the works. Perhaps they’re just going through the motions when they say they’re considering the Park District’s plan.

EDITOR’S NOTE: As we’ve pointed out repeatedly, lack of transparency breeds distrust. And rightfully so.

Regardng whether or not the referendum bonds need to fit under or over the tax levy limit. The code states the annual levy cap is “exclusive of the amount levied for the payment of the principal and interest on bonded indebtedness of the district and taxes authorized by special referenda.”

It isn’t exactly the most clearly written document, but the full statute is here:

Where did you read that the board is entertaining other possibilities but won’t disclose what they are? I would be very interested in reading that information too. I definitely do not trust the Youth Campus board; they have “stacked” the voting so that 8 out of 14 board members are County Club members. And, what a coincidence–Mark Elliott is a Country Club member and a good friend of several Youth Campus board members. Also, I have heard rumors that Elliott is hurting financially; so,where is he coming up with the money? Who are his silent partners in the deal? How and by how much will they benefit financially if they get their hands on the Youth Campus land? Also, if the Park District’s plan doesn’t work, does Elliott’s plan still go through? Will he get more of the land? Will he actually build single family homes or go back to some other “group home/low income housing” plan? Elliott is not to be trusted. He’s a crook, a felon. He pleaded guilty to bribing bank officials at First National Bank. Once a crook, always a crook. Google the Tribune articles.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We briefly Googled Mr. Elliott and found nothing even remotely similar to what you suggest. We assume, however, that the folks who own and run the Youth Campus will do their jobs; and we trust that our elected officials on the Park Board will do theirs. And the more of it that is done in the open, the easier it will be to verify those assumptions.

“Where did you read that the board is entertaining other possibilities but won’t disclose what they are?”

It was in the Herald-Advocate online earlier this week.

EDITOR’S NOTE: But don’t tell anybody, because it’s a secret. Or maybe it will be a surprise. We just LLLLLOVE surprises from government, don’t you?

Two points. First, just because the referendum taxes don’t get charged against the cap doesn’t mean that the Park District won’t cut back on services and programs covered by the cap. Voters who may want the Youth Campus land don’t necessarily want overall higher taxes, so the PD may end up imposing a voluntary cap that includes the referendum tax. Second, who cares about whose doing what at the Youth Campus? If the PD doesn’t buy half the property and Elliott buys it all, so what?

EDITOR’S NOTE: That’s the way we look at it. Re Elliott and the PRCC folks, if the owners/operators of the Youth Campus are willing to sell the Youth Campus property to them, that’s the Youth Campus’ prerogative. If those folks can make an unreasonable profit off the Youth Campus owners, we like that a whole lot better than those same folks making an unreasonable profit off the taxpayers.

I personally care about what’s happening at the Youth Campus for a couple reason.The closing seems shady, even if it’s not. The guys in charge served in a seemingly altruistic capacity but now it looks like they did so to position themselves for financial gain. That’s disappointing to me.

I also care because the property is a unique parcel that has contributed to Park Ridge’s history and unique character. The buildings are architecturally significant and once we lose green space we can never get it back. And does anyone believe we’re facing a housing shortage in PR? Not me.

I think it would be a shame to see it all demolished to make way for a cookie cutter housing development.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you’re concerned about “the guys in charge” of the Youth Campus looking for “financial gain,” take it up with the Youth Campus ownership. That’s no reason for the PRRPD not to do a deal for the property if it’s a good deal for the PRRPD and its taxpayers. The same goes for your concerns about the property’s uniqueness and “architecturally significant” buildings.

If you want to see it preserved “as is,” buy it from the owner and you can cast it in amber if you choose – assuming that doesn’t violate any City codes.

Here is the article I am referring to about Elliott being a crook; like father, like son.

Also, everyone should care about the Youth Campus land. It’s one of a kind; what is done with the land will have a gigantic impact on Park Ridge. If the “wrong” thing goes in there, planned by a crook, it can greatly negatively impact Park Ridge. Park Ridge would forever be changed for the worse.

We know Elliott already owns those three lots on the northeast end of the campus. He tried in numerous “secretive” ways to get P@Z and the City Council to pass his “community homes” idea without ever really disclosing what he exactly had planned. Imagine if he gets his hands on all of the Youth Campus. We’ll probably have subsidized low-income housing. This idea is not off the mark. Again, check what Elliott runs now in Palatine and Maywood–subsidized low-income housing. How wonderful for Park Ridge. Take the last open green beautiful piece of land and run it into the ground.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Is the “Mark Elliott” of that Tribune story the developer Marc Elliott, and how do you know?

Irrespective of the identity question, we have not heard of any “secretive” tricks used to try to get the group home(s) onto Washington. Everything appears to have been above board.

The City “cares” about the Youth Campus to the extent it has a zoning code intended to protect against the “wrong” thing being built anywhere in Park Ridge, not just at the Youth Campus. If whatever is contemplated for that site conforms with the zoning code – whether by single-family homes or by subsidized low-income housing – then that’s that. So if you’ve got a beef with the zoning code, you better make it to the City ASAP.

Yes, the Mark Elliott in the article is the same Mark Elliott, the developer, in Park Ridge, and, yes, it’s the same father Louis of Park Ridge. Mark is living down on Edgemont Lane bordering the Country Club one house away from Youth Campus board member and Country Club friend Doug Johnson. Down on Edgemont Lane several houses away lives Kevin Buggy, chairman of the Youth Campus Board and Country Club friend. The father Louis passed away.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Okay, so we’ll ask again: So what?

First a question for some of you who have posted. Exactly why do we need more green space?? What will we put there? What will we get for it? I mean I have lived here for over 10 years now and I do not walk around feeling deprived of green space. So make a case for exactly why PR needs more green space and should spend what will be millions (5?? 10??). By the way, “I live in the neighboorhood and it will increase my property value” is not a valid answer.

Second, a suggestion. There is all this talk in government about offsetting increased spending with cuts in other areas….in other words, new spending has to be paid for. On a similiar note, this blog always talks about various programs being self supporting. Let’s try these concepts on this youth campus isue. How is this land going to generate revenue to offset what it will cost us (the taxpayers) to buy it and/or what do you want to cut to offset the expense?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Good points, although the cost of purchasing it should be capitalized, as the property would be considered an appreciating (hopefully) asset.

Why does the Park District, or the people of Park Ridge, need 5 or 6 more acres of property right across the street from an existing park (Northeast Park)? As you have pointed out: “the Park District has done nothing since 1994 to acquire any significant acreage for park and recreation purposes.” This sounds like the impulse purchase of potato chips “on special” right before you get to the supermarket check-out counter.

EDITOR’S NOTE: THAT’S the question the Park District will need to answer in the course of the referendum, just like the Park District had to answer it in the course of the referendum on the Edison Park Home property in 1996. But that’s a question that then-commissioners Bob Hamilton, Mary Hester-Tone, Gary Abezetian, Joyce Clark, Dave Hilquist, Mike Rozovics and Roy Sues made sure THEY never had to answer when, instead of going to referendum, they burned up all the Park District’s non-referendum bonding power to buy the old Touhy Avenue YMCA property and build the Community Center 20 years ago.

For me the simple answer to why we need green space has nothing to do with property values. I think that good stewardship of the planet includes not developing every inch of it just because it’s available. As I said, once we lose it we can never get it back.

One example of green space in PR that’s probably inexpensive to maintain is the parkway on Ashland boulevard. Maybe bare-bones green space without costly plantings or sports fields or facilities is the way to go.

I’d add that it seems ironic that the Youth Campus board members that supposedly want to develop the land get to enjoy some of the nicest green space in town at the country club. I can see that more park space wouldn’t be a priority for them. But their actions seem to indicate that the good of the community as a whole isn’t a major consideration.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Let’s not turn this into one of those divisive and nonsensical “99%”/”class warfare” arguments that create lots of heat but shed no light.

The folks who belong to the Country Club pay for the privilege of that facility’s green space, so what business is that of yours? And, to the extent they live in Park Ridge, they also pay property taxes to the Park District. So their opinions – and their votes – are the equals of yours and ours.

The bottom line is that whatever the Park District does with the Youth Campus will have the support of a majority of the November 2012 or April 2013 voters, or it won’t happen at all. And that’s fine with us.

I’m not begrudging the country club people their green space, and I’m fully aware they’re taxpaying residents like the rest of us. I’m just saying they may not care as much about additional open space because they’re already paying for access to plenty of it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Maybe the older residents/taxpayers/voters don’t care that much, either, because it’s been 50 years since they last played baseball or soccer. Would you like to deprive both the Country Clubbers and the seniors of their vote because they may not want more green space?

I just read in the Journal online that the Youth Campus has accepted the PRPD-Elliot proposal, contingent on Nov. referendum. Youth Campus is supposedly going to “support” the PRPD in getting people behind the referendum.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re guessing it’s also contingent on Elliott getting City approval for however many houses he intends to put in his portion of the Youth Campus.

It’s a done deal. PR J-T has the story. Of course, you can always go to my blog – it’s linked!

Sorry, I couldn’t resist!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sorry, Ken, but it won’t be “a done deal” until the votes are counted in November.

Right! I stand corrected.

Sure seems like a wacky idea to me given the economy.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We haven’t seen or heard enough to decide whether it’s a good or bad idea, although we don’t think the acquisition of prime residential real estate at what appears to be a reasonable price is any wackier than, say, burning off around $160,000 a year of taxpayer funds for the past 6-7 years on a semi-private club for around 800 residents because those residents/members insist on paying only $45/year in “dues.” Or spinelessly crawling away from a $330,000 bequest expressly to the “Park Ridge Senior Center” because some private corporation shamelessly claims that bequest was intended for “Park Ridge Senior Services, Inc.”

Would you like to deprive both the Country Clubbers and the seniors of their vote because they may not want more green space?

Of course not. Geez. And green space isn’t just about ball fields and playgrounds. It’s also about gardens, wildlife, contemplation, relaxation…activities to be enjoyed at any age. You should try it sometime!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Geez, did we miss the PRRPD’s plans for a botanic garden, wildlife preserve and meditation pool at the Youth Campus? We’re guessing the neighbors who didn’t want a cell tower in Northeast Park may object to the bison and pronghorn sheep roaming the new PRRPD property, but who knows?


No disrespect intended but there are MANY areas on PRPD property that you can do all of those things you listed. Have you tried a stroll around the Nature Center?? How about a peaceful walk around Hinkley or Centenial Park? I have done all of these things and not once experienced a crowd!!

One more suggestion….try yoga!!

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Park District’s program, or private?

9:24, no disrespect taken. I am very familiar with all of PR’s parks and just because they are lovely doesn’t mean we wouldn’t benefit from another one.

Another housing development just doesn’t seem to be the right choice to me when we’re not facing any sort of housing shortage.

And as I’ve said previously, it seems irresponsible to develop every inch of land on the planet just because it’s available. I think we as humans can all benefit from open space.

While I think we can all agree that open space is a good thing, it’s what is done with that space that will be the driving factor. With the exception of those in the immediate area, I can’t imagine the people of PR voting to leave the PRPD portion as is with just renovations to the buildings for administration and indoor classes. They are going to want sports fields, playgrounds, batting cages, dog park, pools/water park (?), running track/fitness course, etc. Something to benefit all, not just those who live in the neighborhood who are going to want a pastoral and quiet retreat. And as someone pointed out earlier, they wouldn’t even allow a cell phone tower at NE Park and also complained that the proposed Sr. group home would be too disruptive.

So this is what will happen. The people of the neighborhood will fight to stop Elliott because they don’t want the additional houses (“traffic”, “Field School overloaded”, “wa, wa, wa”). Then they’ll push for the PD to purchase the property and leave it basically the same with the exception of infrastructure improvements for indoor activities between the hours of 9 to 5 (“no lights in the parking lot”) and of course lots and lots of new pretty flowers and trees. In other words, their own private park.

Unless the PRPD comes up with a pretty ambitious plan that will benefit all users, not just those who want a multi-million meditation park, there will be very little support from the tax payers. The argument that land rarely comes available will not fly. Hell, they still don’t even have a plan (or the money) to do something with the few acres of vacant land where the pools used to be at Oakton Park.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Your points are all well taken.

Fortunately, the voters should have their say on this project because the Park Board appears to be committed to going to referendum, which is commendable given some of the likely controversies you identify and the overall cost of the project. And we can contrast that attitude with the Park Board circa 1991, when then-commissioners Bob Hamilton, Garry Abezetian, Mike Rozovics, Mary Hester Tone, Joyce Clark, Dave Hilquist and Roy Sues imperiously refused to go to referendum and, instead, committed virtually all of the District’s non-referendum bonding power to build the Community Center – thereby financially crippling the District for years to come.

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