The Park District of Highland Park had a mantra throughout the pandemic: health and safety above all; be innovative and deliver essential services to the community, and be fiscally responsible. This mantra is now starting to pay off.
Prudent financial planning and best practice cost-cutting solutions by the Board of Commissioners and Administration have put the Park District in an enviable position to fund maintenance and improvement projects across the community in the coming years. These projects will maintain and improve the Park District experience for generations to come.
The Park District has emerged from the pandemic shutdown on sure financial footing despite the restrictions and limitations in serving the community. And it has retained its Aaa bond rating.
“The Park Board of Commissioners were diligent in keeping a watchful eye on the financials with semi-monthly Finance Committee meetings,” said Mari Lynn Peters, Director of Finance for the Park District. “A series of cost-saving measures were key in ensuring the Park District would remain viable throughout and after the pandemic. These included a salary freeze for all employees, the unfortunate furloughing of some employees and re-assigning others, reduced operating hours for numerous facilities, and the transition of the printed program brochure to digital.”
Another factor that played a large part in the Park District’s solid financial situation was that “outdoor programs saved us,” said Peters. “Our outdoor tennis, athletics, and golf programs had record numbers. Staff put our thinking caps on and offered new online program content and purchased a tent to have fitness classes outside.”
“Our staff was more innovative than they’ve ever been, and their creativity allowed us to find ways to serve the community. Every single person who works for the Park District had to step up and, in many cases, do things outside their normal roles. They sacrificed a lot for the sake of our mission,” said Brian Romes, Executive Director for the Park District.
He also credited the Park District Board of Commissioners for their “important role in getting us through this fiscally” and the residents for their support and trust. During the pandemic, he said, “the community supported our programs and trusted that we were safe and acting responsibly. That was a difference-maker.”
Planning for the Future
One of the top priorities cited by residents in a 2019 Attitude and Interest Survey was the continued maintenance of the District’s facilities that support its programs. The Park District’s financial planning makes it possible to map out critical projects included in its five-year capital plan, which runs from 2022-2026. These include repairing or replacing asphalt parking lots, replacing basketball and tennis courts, replacing vehicles and equipment around our parks and facilities.
As the Park District is wrapping up GreenPrint Master Plan projects at Sunset Woods Park and The Preserve of Highland Park, the new 100-acre passive recreation and natural area, planning has also begun to renovate areas at Centennial Ice Arena, address erosion at Lakefront Properties, and much more.
Other large-scale projects are also now in the works. On Oct. 26, the Park District Board approved an ordinance to sell $17 million in debt certificates to initiate long-needed infrastructure projects. The time was right to sell the debt certificates to help the Park District attend to mission-critical infrastructure. Interest rates, Peters said, are at historic lows. The Park District is also retiring two previous debt certificates from 2012 and 2013, according to Peters. Paying them off early, she said, will save the Park District roughly $300,000.
“While staff identified over $20 million in long-term capital improvement projects that remain unfunded, with help from the Parks Foundation of Highland Park, as well as state and federal grant opportunities, the Park District is in a good position to maintain what we have and make improvements where they are needed most,” Romes said.
“This is a very exciting time for our Park District,” said Park Board Commissioner Jennifer Freeman. “We keep putting one foot in front of the other, trusting our staff, and making progress.”