Recreation & Destinations

Enriching Lives at St. Charles Park District

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With more than 100 years of service and dozens of facilities, this park district offers many excuses to play. Discover what St. Charles residents already know about their town’s amazing, award-winning park district.

The large pavilion at Pottawatomie Park in St. Charles. (Mike Frankowski photo)

Long before Ray Ochromowicz became the executive director of the St. Charles Park District, in January 2011, he was already familiar with the park district’s reputation.

“I had relatives that lived along the Fox River for many years,” says Ochromowicz, who previously worked for the Bolingbrook and Park Ridge park districts. “Three and a half years ago, I started dating my fiancée, Lisa, who’s lived here for 23 years. We’d have a picnic in the park, walk along the bike trails or attend one of the many special events hosted here. I was intimately familiar with the programs and facilities. I’ve always been impressed with the St. Charles Park District.”

That seems to be the consensus. Throughout St. Charles, residents rave about the quality and variety of the park district’s programs and services. From swimming to tennis lessons, bike paths and soccer fields to outdoor education, residents are proud of their community’s recreation options.

The mission of the park district is to enrich the quality of life for residents through programs, parks, facilities and services. What started as a resort community more than 100 years ago, on 50 acres of riverfront property, has turned into nearly 1,600 acres of park land, with playgrounds, 60 athletic fields, 70 playgrounds, a nine-hole golf course, 25 miles of biking and hiking trails, 19 tennis courts, 17 basketball courts, 11 natural areas, three skate parks, three dog parks, three aquatic facilities, disc and miniature golf courses, soccer fields and more.

Several special events take place throughout park district facilities every year. One of the most popular is the Scarecrow Fest, which draws more than 100,000 visitors to downtown St. Charles over four days each fall. During the summer, Pottawatomie Park hosts a dazzling 4th of July fireworks display, Lincoln Park is the place to be for weekly concerts, and art lovers head to Mt. St. Mary Park for the annual Sculpture in the Park exhibit featuring works from artists around the country. Every summer, the district celebrates National Therapeutic Recreation Week with a summer camp for nearly 1,000 individuals with disabilities.

“We’ve been able to preserve 1,600 acres of park land, almost every neighborhood has a park within walking distance, and we have the highest percentage of park land per person in our area,” says Erika Young, marketing manager. “Our park board has been quite active in acquiring land, preserving natural areas and meeting the needs of our residents. The members have the citizens’ best interests at heart.”

The park district has received many awards, including the 1998 National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management, which identified the park district as one of the best in the nation serving a population of 20,000 to 50,000 residents. In the past 20 years, the park district has been a finalist for the award six other times, including 2012. “It’s the most prestigious award a public park and recreation agency can earn, and it’s a tough competition,” Young says. “As a finalist, St. Charles is considered a leader in parks and recreation.”

It’s not just local residents who’ve taken notice. “Having an award-winning park district is a great boon to our mission of attracting visitors and event planners to St. Charles,” says Amy Egolf, executive director of the Greater St. Charles Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The district has wonderful programs and facilities for leisure guests and groups. We promote many of the entities and components of the park district, and we work closely with them in coordinating the Scarecrow Fest, one of the biggest fall events in the state and the Midwest. Our partnership with the park district has resulted in securing and enhancing area events, which results in bolstering the health of the local economy.”

Last year, the park district commemorated its centennial with several celebrations. “We tried to do something for every age group, every facility and every aspect of the park district,” Young says. “One hundred years is a special celebration. Back then, a group of leaders recognized the importance of keeping and maintaining open space for leisure activities. Pottawatomie Park became an iconic piece of land that led to the development of the park district and the many programs and services we offer today.”

The Past

The St. Charles Park District began with Pottawatomie Park, which is located on land originally used as a campsite by Potawatomi Indians. In the early 1830s, Calvin Ward purchased property that included this campsite. It is believed he paid $75 for the property north of East Main Street and west of Fourth Avenue. Ward eventually left St. Charles and headed west, leaving the property to his son, Lorenzo Ward.

Lorenzo made his fortune in farming and dairy-related businesses. On property that overlooked the Fox River, he built a large, castle-like home. It was situated on what would later be the eastern border of Pottawatomie Park. When the Great Western Railroad was built, Lorenzo lost the southern portion of his estate to the railroad construction. He sold the remainder of his property to A. B. Stickney of St. Paul, Minn., and Clinton D. Wing and Charles H. Haines of St. Charles.

Stickney, Wing and Haines planned to develop the property with hotels for railroad travelers, but their plans never panned out. Around 1890, they developed 35 acres into a privately owned park. By 1900 there were tables and benches for picnics, swings, a boat launch, refreshment stands for ice cream and soda pop, a merry-go-round, and a pavilion for dancing. The pavilion was built in 1892 and featured a tower that was removed in the late 1950s. In 1988, a gazebo imitation of the top of the tower was built in Lincoln Park, on the west side of St. Charles.

While the privately owned Pottawatomie Park was gaining popularity, so were public parks. In major cities, parks were being created for working people to play outdoors and participate in a healthy lifestyle. In 1895, the Illinois legislature passed an act enabling local park districts.

Each district would be governed by elected commissioners, with the ability to tax residents and to buy and develop land for parks, for the legal purpose of providing for the health, well-being and entertainment of citizens.

In 1911, Bert C. Norris distributed a petition to form a park commission and purchase Pottawatomie Park for a public area governed by St. Charles Township. The following year, it became one of the first public parks established under the new Illinois law.

The park grew in the 1930s, when the board purchased 24 acres north of the park. Bert’s nephew, Lester Norris, with wife Dellora Norris, donated additional acres. The property was developed to include a swimming pool complex, a recreational building and the nine-hole Pottawatomie Golf Course, designed by the renowned golf architect Robert Trent Jones. Improved tennis courts, a ball diamond with stone bleachers, and an amphitheater/band shell were built on the original park property. Money from the federal government, made available through the Works Progress Administration, funded the major part of the developments, and the rest came from a donation from the Norris family.

The Present

In 2007, the park district embarked on a major planning effort, appointing three citizens’ advisory committees to evaluate new programs and facilities. As a result of the planning process, in 2008, park district residents overwhelmingly approved a $25 million capital improvement referendum, allowing the park district to expand its program services, including the construction of a bike bridge, 15 new playgrounds, five picnic shelters, three basketball courts, two dog parks and a skate park.

“It was a pivotal moment,” says Ochromowicz. “We were able to renovate a very old swimming pool that desperately needed repair, and at the same time, build a second aquatic facility on the west side of town. You don’t build them just to build them; you build them because the public expressed interest in these things and voted for these things.”

Other enhancements came about as a result of the referendum. The addition of Otter Cove Aquatic Park increased the district’s number of aquatic programs. Primrose Farm, a 1930s working farm that provides hands-on experiences, was restored. Two years ago, the LEED-certified Hickory Knolls Discovery Center was built, housing programs and exhibits that showcase the importance of sustainability and eco-responsibility.

“The idea of Hickory Knolls was a critical component,” Ochromowicz says. “Our focus was to get kids reconnected with nature. If they don’t connect, don’t appreciate the trees, flowers and open spaces, what will be left? We’re trying to change the mindset that there is an abundance of air and water. Someday, it’s going to be used up.”

Partnerships

The park district has been extremely successful in acquiring grants, donations and sponsorships that have led to improvements to existing facilities and helped to develop new properties. The district is involved in several cooperative planning efforts, partnering with 150 local organizations. The park board and staff serve in leadership positions with local, regional, state and national organizations, as well as professional parks and recreation associations.

One of the greatest examples of partnership is River Bend Community Park. Thanks to the teamwork of the St. Charles Park District, the Kane County Forest Preserve and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the site that once was the Illinois Youth Detention Center was transformed into a neighborhood park. River Bend has softball and soccer fields, biking trails and picnic areas, a dog park, skate park, community gardens, fish pond, playgrounds and basketball and tennis courts.

“In an area that was once blighted and run-down, now sits a beautiful 45-acre community park,” says Ochromowicz. “That’s the power of collaboration. By combining resources, you can do more with less, and do things you couldn’t do before. And you have greater benefactors – people that connect well with you and connect with your partners. You can’t do it alone.”

And that includes the park district staff. The organization has 69 full-time employees, 66 year-round part-time employees, and 359 seasonal employees, many of whom have served the district for 20 or more years. “I’m impressed with the talent and the quality of our staff,” Ochromowicz says. “The quality of programs and services wouldn’t be at the level it is without their commitment and skills. It all starts with a talented staff.”

In addition to paid staff, the district relies on a large number of volunteers to help run programs and services. Retired teachers serve as program instructors, parents help with athletic events, Girl Scouts serve coffee at senior activities and nature lovers assist with natural area restoration projects. Last year, 16,488 volunteer hours were logged at park district-related activities. “It’s just another form of partnership,” Young says. “We couldn’t do some of our programs without their help.”

The park district is always looking for ways to improve. The marketing department is using social media to communicate programs and events. The recreation department has implemented a new program called Rollin’ Recreation, in which staff members are taking programs on the road.

“Instead of coming to us, we’re going to them,” Young says. “For example, we took 100 pumpkins to a park to have a pumpkin painting activity for kids with nothing to do while their siblings played sports. We’re getting people outside and helping them to enjoy life.”

Continuing its century-long mission, the park district continues seeking new opportunities.

“The most important person in the park system is the constituent,” says Ochromowicz. “We encourage people to come out to a free concert, take a walk in the park, or enjoy a bike ride. The purpose of the park district is to improve their health and welfare. The greatest reward for our staff is to see the volume of people enjoying the parks each and every day.”

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