St. Charles Park District: Mission Drives a Culture of Excellence

With an eye on partnerships, responsible stewardship and a dedication to enhancing the quality of life, this organization is laser-focused on its purpose.

By partnering with local athletic organizations like Tri-City Chargers Youth Football, the St. Charles Park District saves money while creating opportunities.

When your mission is to enhance the quality of life in a community, you can impact residents and visitors in many ways. For the St. Charles Park District, though, the mission isn’t just about quality of life. It’s about providing excellent programs, parks, facilities and services through which people can enjoy life in the community. And every decision answers to that mission.

Holly Cabel

“We offer many different activities for a variety of audiences, but they all still meet our mission,” says Holly Cabel, director of parks and recreation. “We seek to satisfy the community through our programs and services, and our staff is invaluable for making this happen.”

Staff may be a big part of the formula for success, but it’s just one component for this organization. As one of Illinois’ oldest park districts, St. Charles Park District is today built upon a culture of fulfilling the community’s needs while responsibly stewarding taxpayer dollars.

It’s no small order, given that the district serves more than 1 million visitors annually through 25 unique amenities, 20-plus miles of biking and walking trails, 11 natural areas, 40 sport courts and 64 athletic fields.

Through the park district and its partnerships, the St. Charles area has more than 20 miles of trails at 11 natural areas.

“We provide nearly 29 acres per thousand that we serve in our community, and I’m really proud of that,” says Cabel. “A lot of park districts can’t say that. What it means for us is that we have the ability to provide more green space, more trees, more tree canopy, more services – and that’s a real benefit to our community.”

Of course, all of this takes money, and that’s a challenge for any taxpayer-funded organization. Where this park district separates itself is through a deliberate approach to stewardship. There are two pillars to this philosophy: partnerships and grant funding. Each helps to lessen the burden on an organization that represents 7% of the local tax bill, says Cabel.

For St. Charles Park District, partnerships cover many facets. With the Kane County Forest Preserve, the park district has not only acquired outdoor recreation areas but it’s also developed a cooperative to share native plant seeds with forest preserves in Kane, Cook and McHenry counties. The result has helped to remove invasive species and restore the park district’s 43.1-acre Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve.

Perhaps the park district’s biggest partnership is with St. Charles Community Unit School District 303. Not only does the park district manage after-school care for some 300 students, but it also oversees programming and operations for the massive Norris Recreation Center and its 3,700 members. Located on the campus of St. Charles East High School, the recreation center maintains fitness, tennis and swimming facilities as well as a gymnasium and a variety of other health and fitness assets.

“The school district still owns the building, but we manage it through an intergovernmental agreement,” says Cabel. “We both win. Membership is at its highest level in years. This is a great portrait of how a partnership works well. Every year, our agencies meet to make sure the partnership is working harmoniously.”

Many nonprofit groups also benefit from their partnerships with the park district, through which nearly 10,000 people enjoy soccer, baseball, basketball, athletic training, physical therapy, kayaking/canoeing, dance and more.

“By partnering with local athletic organizations, residents get more program opportunities for fewer dollars because we’re not duplicating efforts,” Cabel says.

For Cabel, good stewardship is more than just smart partnerships. It’s also about developing new sources of income, to help offset the burden on taxpayers. This is particularly helpful when it comes to major capital expenditures, such as improvements that are happening right now at the district’s Primrose Farm. Thanks to a $750,000 matching grant from the Illinois Public Museum Capital Grant program, construction is now underway on an agricultural lab that includes a programming room, a lab, public restrooms and staff offices. For the first time in its history, the working farm, where more than a dozen animals reside, will be able to host programming year-round.

Just to the north, Primrose Farm Park is receiving upgrades thanks to additional grant funding. Set to be completed next year, the improvements include reconfigured parking lots, new shelters and improvements to softball, rugby and soccer fields.

The park district manages the extensive John B. Norris Recreation Center through a partnership with St. Charles Community Unit School District 303.

Also coming to this park is an “adult ninja course” – the equivalent of a giant playground for adults. The idea was the result of surveys among local residents.

Community input is always welcomed and extremely valuable, Cabel adds. Periodic communication with residents helps the district to gauge what is needed and where it’s needed.

“It can be as simple as, when you’re doing a renovation of a neighborhood park, making sure postcards go out to anyone near that park,” she says. “We can identify specific addresses to make sure we notify people in the area, ask what they want to see, and allow them to comment on it.

Through seasonal online surveys, we get feedback from program participants and facility visitors.”

Cabel has worked with the park district since she started full-time in 1996, but the St. Charles native had also worked there part-time in her youth. Experiences as a community center supervisor, an aquatics supervisor and superintendent of recreation led her to the corner office 10 years ago. She’s seen the park district grow in many ways, and she believes it has much to do with the full-time staff of 81 – and hundreds of other seasonal staffers.

“They’re provided great training and motivated to continue learning more, thus making the customer experience even better. We appreciate that they’re always flexible in their scheduling,” she says. “They do so much for this district.”

Cabel believes staffing is a double-edged sword. While their contributions are essential, it’s also a challenge to fill those spots with the right people, particularly over the past few years as the job market has changed. It hasn’t always been easy to find lifeguards, grounds crews and other staffers, but Cabel says the park district still met its goal these past few years.

“A lot of times you hear news stories about lifeguard shortages or other positions coming up short and places have had to redo their facilities hours to meet their staffing,” she says. “We were very lucky in that we never had to do that.”

Across the district, passion for the mission and the work run high. After 27 years with the district, Cabel knows the feeling.

“The fact that we have a good amount of longevity among our ranks shows there’s an appreciation for the culture here and a passion for the parks,” she says. “We love serving the community, and I’m so excited to see how we continue to grow.”