History of the Frankfort Square Park District

The Frankfort Square Park District was incorporated in 1974 by a small group of determined and dedicated residents for the specific purposes of meeting the recreational needs of friends and family, and establishing parks by accepting open space available from home developers.

In the FSPD’s early years of existence, and with minimal funds available, Commissioners served this bedroom community of 2,000 homes in unincorporated Frankfort Township in the County of Will, by acting as programmers, referees, park maintenance workers, and stewards of the limited tax dollars provided by a supportive community.

The referendum to incorporate provided seed money to establish basic services that included the first athletic fields, playgrounds, tennis courts, and various landscape improvements. The initial referendum and supporting state grant was not allowed to be used for a park district building, but with the concession stand approved, this small 1,200 square foot space, located on Rosewood Drive adjacent to what is now known as Mary Drew Elementary School/SHSD 161 District Office, served as a concession stand, meeting space, and park district office.

Surrounded by cornfields, the park district emulated close-knit communities typical of the original farm communities in Illinois. Barbeque grills would appear at baseball games, and ponds would be cleared with shovels for winter skating. The FSPD, being one of the few governing bodies of this small group, continued to gain support as a representative organization.

One of the unusual first resolutions was the limiting of horses that frequented park property, thus minimizing the required clean-up.

Commissioners remained the representative force behind all park activities and functions until the first part time director was hired, leading to the first full time park director in 1982. Recreation expanded as the community grew. Capital development was severely limited, and with an annual budget of less than $187,000, the Park Board, staff, and community were exceptionally resourceful.

The baseball league negotiated a land lease from Joliet Diocese, securing a 7-acre site for the development of two much-needed ball diamonds. Records indicated that Pella Windows in Elk Grove Village donated a window to the park district to allow the first cross ventilation of the concession stand/ Community Center that remained a non air-conditioned space until the early 90’s. This first building was renovated in 2003, and is still in use today as a concession stand and popular community location for many Scout organizations. Photographs of the original construction are on display in the building, providing a glimpse into the district’s early days. Commissioners would adopt a park close to their homes and be personally responsible for park maintenance, which included mowing and emptying garbage cans.

The first commercial tractor was purchased in 1982 from Martin Implement; Martin Implement would continue to service the park district until the present day. This dedication and cooperative effort with supporting contractors and businesses became a key to the continued success and efficiency of the FSPD. The tractor was funded with an installment contract provided by Frankfort State Bank. The second Ford 340B tractor loader, purchased in 1985 for $16,500, is still owned and used daily by the park district.

The Frankfort Square Park District has worked jointly with all surrounding government agencies since its inception. No more valued relationship was created than with Summit Hill School District 161. Since the beginning, the two organizations founded a mutually beneficial arrangement, supporting each other with available facilities, staff, and equipment.

Without programming space, the park district was allowed free access to all Summit Hill schools. The FSPD, a tiny dot of a park district, was permitted access to gymnasiums, classrooms, and campuses equal to park districts of much greater size. In exchange, the FSPD would develop school campuses with playgrounds and athletic fields, and provide summer and winter maintenance at these expansive campuses.

Throughout the history of both the FSPD and SHSD 161, neither organization has had a referendum fail. It is believed that this tremendous community support is based in the practical nature of both organizations, but also that school and park district facilities would be available through park programs to all members of the community. This concept led to future referendum success that enabled the construction of Lincoln-Way North High School. Lincoln-Way North also provides access to opportunities not available to district 10 times the size of the FSPD.

In 1985, the park district finalized its borders, adding unincorporated lands to the south and east. The expansion was questioned at the time, due to the fact that the Catholic Church owned over 660 acres of annexed property. In the future, all land would be sold, with property being developed as both residential and commercial. The property was sold by the Catholic Church and developed commercially by the Manheim Auto Auction, the largest commercial development within the park district. Of the original 660 acres, 440 acres remain undeveloped, and are still available for commercial development.

The park district built its final home in 1990, with the use of non-referendum bonds securing $1,000,000 for the construction of a Community Center that would house park offices, designed space for the Early Learning Center (ELC) preschool, a large community room, and space for maintenance equipment. The move was expedited when the local sewer service backed up into the original FSPD building, rendering it uninhabitable for a period of time. In the interim, park district staff was housed in a large closet located in the Summit Hill Junior High School. The ELC was allowed occupancy prior to construction completion.

The park district was approached by residents after a local municipality had acquired the privately owned sewer and water utility service that serviced its residents. The village had imposed a capital charge on the unincorporated area to fund this asset acquisition. Park district residents believed this action was inherently unfair, and they solicited the park district to begin discourse on the matter, and eventually pursue legal recourse. A corporate rate increase referendum was offered to residents to provide a funding source for legal action that was resoundingly approved. The park district and residents lost the litigation, but the village settled, resolving the disagreement by imposing the capital charge against all village and non-residents equally.

Once the litigation was over, the park district, through the efforts of dedicated volunteers, solicited signatures necessary to add a non-binding question to the ballot, allowing the FSPD to continue the corporate rate tax increase previously used for the “water fight”, for park district purposes. This non-binding referendum was not required to continue the expanded corporate tax assessment, but was necessary to ensure residents had the opportunity to object or reject the new direction. Once again, the residents supported this issue and resoundingly approved the advisory measure. The park district benefitted from this new funding source, enabling the addition of much needed capital funds for a myriad of improvements throughout park properties.

The FSPD began working with developers of a 2,000 home subdivision, Brookside Glen, in the mid 80’s, and again negotiated a complex donation agreement of over 250 acres of open space and various physical improvements for the long term benefit of the Frankfort Square community. The developer, a proponent of recreation, realized the importance of incorporating walking paths with immediate access to open space in the design of this hugely successful subdivision. The FSPD relinquished financial impact fee compensation in exchange for maximum land donation, and secured 60+ acres of open space immediately adjacent to the original park district concession stand, now known as Union Creek Park. In the continued spirit of cooperation, the FSPD leased much-needed land to SHSD 161, enabling construction of Dr. Julian Rogus Elementary School at the Union Creek Park site. The school brought necessary utilities and parking to the new site, lowering the FSPD’s future improvement costs for Union Creek Park. This is one of a few instances where a park district provides land to a school district. With greater frequency, the reverse is true.

Conservative estimates projected land acquisition savings for SHSD 161 in excess of $2.5 million. The park district saved $750,000 in parking lot construction and necessary utility infrastructure; the proverbial win-win situation.

Working with Will and Cook Counties, Frankfort Township, and the Villages of Frankfort and Tinley Park, a comprehensive impact fee ordinance was established that proved to be a model for surrounding jurisdictions. The ordinance provides 5.5 acres of improved park property per one thousand residents, with immediate access to utilities. The FSPD also has the option to negotiate cash in lieu of land donation, if the area to be developed is already serviced by existing park property. The park district would also accept non-buildable detention/retention land for development of the sites as recreation space, or cash for the perpetual maintenance of accepted properties. This land/cash in lieu of donation ordinance has provided over 400 acres of improved park property and cash contributions, exceeding $400,000. All cash proceeds from developer impact fees are used for capital improvements throughout the district.

In 1996, the previously mentioned impact ordinance led to the acceptance and development of Island Prairie Park by Jacque Engles, owner of Lafayette Nursery. Many considered Jacque Engles to be the father of native restoration in Illinois. This inaugural native development of a mesic/wet mesic prairie is now reflected as a first step in Illinois’ restoration efforts, and is nationally recognized as a mission of advocacy and development of green landscape throughout our community.

This mission started in a very inconspicuous manner when the sea of 6’ giant ragweed was killed with Roundup herbicide in preparation for the first of many controlled burns. “Controlled” burn became a misnomer when the Lafayette Fire Department members who were contracted to complete the burn ignited the prairie, creating a runaway burn that culminated with a 100’ vortex of flame in the center of Island Prairie, prompting responses from Frankfort, Tinley Park, Mokena and Matteson fire departments. The safeguard of a cool season grass border surrounding the site was successful in preventing fire and flames from threatening adjacent residents’ homes.

The tiny Frankfort Square Park District, realizing the importance of natural areas, has employed three park naturalists in its history. The first was a Canadian native, Sue Plankis, who brought a passion and knowledge to our parks in their early stages of development. JF New, and specifically their employee, Clayton Wooldridge, worked cooperatively on natural areas within district, which led to Clayton being employed for a short time as the FSPD’s Park Naturalist. Currently, park district resident, Julie Arvia, enters the longest tenure of service, bringing a unique energy to the natural areas within the district.

In 1995, the FSPD commissioned the services of Dr. Anthony Zito, Professor at the University of St. Francis, with the support of his students, to conduct the first needs assessment and master plan. This led to an ongoing process of evaluation and planning, further detailed in this report.

Findings from this research indicated strong community support for the largest capital development in the history of the district. The “Something for Everyone” referendum asked and received resounding community support for over $5,000,000 in capital development funds to replace, add, or improve much-needed park assets throughout our district.

Diversity of opportunities best describes the numerous projects completed with these referendum proceeds. New construction included 36 separate improvements highlighted by a baseball/softball complex, the largest outdoor skate park in the south suburbs, an NHL-style inline hockey skate rink, Frisbee golf course, new playgrounds, and picnic shelters, many of which are located at local schools, doubling as outdoor classrooms. Improvements took place at all park properties throughout the community.

Grants played a huge role in maximizing financial resources, securing $4,122,733 of additional monetary support of park improvements. One key addition was the completion of 9.9 miles of bike/walking paths, initiated with park and state grant funding. The path system was further developed through cooperative efforts with Frankfort Township, wherein the park district applied for grant funding on the Township’s behalf, providing additional mileage that connects to existing FSPD trails.

The Frankfort Square Park District provides services for residents with special needs through the South Suburban Special Recreation Association (SSSRA). SSSRA is a therapeutic recreation program that is an extension of eight park districts and three recreation and parks departments. It is organized to provide individuals with disabilities or special needs the opportunity to be involved in year round recreation programs. The park district has been a member of SSSRA since 1989.

FSPD’s commitment to their residents with disabilities is exemplified by donating park property within the district’s largest 45 acre park site, Union Creek Park in 2002, and its involvement in the construction process, from the initial planning stages through the completion of SSSRA’s administrative offices and ongoing maintenance issues. The park district’s Executive Director drafted an agreement with the member districts to complete the sale of alternate bonds in the amount of $750,000, which provided the necessary funding for building design and construction. SSSRA’s new home has given the association greater stability and visibility in the community, and has saved valuable time and money previously spent on frequent relocation.

The park district became recognized nationally, named a finalist for the prestigious National Recreation and Park Association Gold Medal Award in 2004. This would be the first of five finalist recognitions, with the FSPD receiving the Grand Award in 2007.

The park district would save Hickory Creek Golf Course from residential development in 2002. CorLands a non-profit agency working cooperatively with the park district, purchased the site from a local bank when the previous owner defaulted on its capital improvement loan. The CorLands acquisition enabled the FSPD to pursue and receive state grant funds for the acquisition and development of the property.

After taking ownership, the park district worked with the Frankfort Township Road Commissioner Fred Rauch to expand adjacent St. Francis Road, improving public safety, and install an extensive planted retaining wall that enhanced the property and community. The cost of this landscaped wall was in excess of $750,000.

The FSPD held a contest, requesting residents to name the new golf course, and the winner was Square Links Golf Course and Driving Range. The park district improved all areas of the golf course and facility. An attractive public course and learning facility, thousands of residents and non-residents alike benefit from this affordable opportunity on an annual basis.

In 2006, the FSPD established a college scholarship golf tournament that has generated $10,000 annually, providing $1,000 scholarships for ten graduating high school seniors.

The park district supports a myriad of public organizations, providing locations and logistics for local school and non-profit organizations. These include weekly meeting space for scouting and homeowners groups at park district facilities. The Frankfort Square Baseball League, Frankfort Square Wildcats Football League, and many more local youth and adult athletic organizations are given scheduled practice and game time at athletic fields and gymnasiums. The park district presents young musicians, including the Summit Hill Summer Band and Lincoln-Way Youth Strings, annually during its Local Music Showcase at the Island Prairie Park Bandshell.

Resident ideas, combined with park district facilities, have resulted in numerous popular community events benefitting worthy causes. The American Cancer Society’s Bark for Life, the International Rett Syndrome Strollathon, and the Indoor Triathlon benefitting the Crisis Center of South Suburbia have become annual events made possible by dedicated residents. By providing facilities and staff expertise, the park district also supports local cross country meets, scouting races, the Summit Hill Family Fun Run, the Phoenix Phun Run, and the Lincoln-Way North Homecoming Parade.

The latest and greatest opportunity was the successful passage of a new high school referendum in 2006. Prior to the construction of Lincoln-Way North High School, the park district had successfully worked cooperatively with the Frankfort and Mokena Park Districts, forming the Lincoln-Way Area Parks (L.A.P.) program. L.A.P. provided recreational program opportunities at the Lincoln-Way East High School campus for District 210 residents.

The Lincoln-Way East High School campus offered wonderful recreation space that included a field house with three full court basketball courts, 1/9 mile track, Olympic-sized swimming and diving pool, fitness center, and dance studio.

In August of 2008, Lincoln-Way North High School opened its doors, and the FSPD was granted exclusive use and scheduling of the indoor and outdoor athletic facilities. The park district formed the Frankfort Square Park District Activities at North program, F.A.N., providing District 210 residents with access to open gyms, fitness center, and weight room activities.

The North campus offers outdoor programming opportunities on their 90 acre campus that includes a synthetic surface soccer/football field in a 5,000 seat stadium, ¼ mile track, three lighted baseball fields, two lighted softball fields, and three soccer/football fields all available for use by the park district.

In addition, the campus also comes complete with a Performing Arts Center with professional acoustics, seating for 800, and is home to the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra. This space is frequently used by the park district for preschool Christmas shows and the spring dance recital. The park also promotes Lincoln-Way District 210’s performing arts Senior, Spotlight, and Children’s Series programming.

Residents of the Frankfort Square Park District have always valued recreation programming, with strong participation in early childhood, youth, adult, performing arts, athletic, and fitness offerings. Special events, including the daddy/daughter date night, seasonal lunches, fishing derby, community garage sale, and toy and clothing resale are treasured annual events. In 2009, the park district realized a long-term goal of providing quality before and after school care to residents with the BAS program. As with other programming, cooperation with the local school districts was critical. In order to best serve the students of the Summit Hill Elementary School District, Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210 provided bus transportation, allowing students to be safely transported by existing bus routes between school and the park district’s program location. Students are welcomed into a highly structured program featuring certified teachers offering homework assistance and designed space for gross motor activities, arts and crafts, a computer lab, and Wii game systems. Program scholarships are made available for residents with financial need, so everyone is able to participate.

The FSPD and Frankfort Square Baseball League were notified by the Joliet Diocese that property leased and developed in the 80’s had been sold to a local land developer, and these fields developed through bake sales and resident contributions would be lost. The FSPD attempted to purchase the property in the past, but the asking price was prohibitive.

The fields were abandoned, pending development. Within the year, the developer and economy had taken a downturn, and the property was lost to the bank. The park district acted quickly, making a low cash offer for purchase, and after nearly thirty years, the community had secured a permanent home for youth baseball and softball games. The park district re-engineered the fields, improving drainage and added landscaping. Working cooperatively with Township Highway Commissioner, the park district completed asphalt parking that serves a dual purpose, housing a wood chip recycling area, available for public use at this site.

In 2005, SHSD 161 sought and gained approval for a new junior high. Summit Hill Junior High School offers many recreational opportunities, with a campus adjacent to the existing Hunter Prairie Park, ensuring best use of existing green space and parking. The school also includes a competitive track, soccer/football field, and softball and baseball fields. Indoor improvements, available to the FSPD include two collegiate-style gymnasiums, fitness center, and a cafetorium, a unique combination of cafeteria and auditorium.

The park district has worked cooperatively with the State of Illinois to register, restore, and stock fish at various park district ponds. Working with the IDNR fishery biologist, the FSPD has improved water quality through catch and release, and the installation of fish walls. After completing an extensive fish inventory, it was discovered that the park district ponds supported one walleye and two northern pike, in addition to many catfish, largemouth bass, bluegill, and sunfish. The walleye and pike were relocated to Woodlawn Pond. Prior to state-supported stocking, the Frankfort Area Jaycees provided funding for private stocking of Island Prairie Pond, and the installation of the first flag pole at the park district’s Community Center.

The FSPD works with local Scouting groups on numerous projects, some of which include installation of fishing piers, wood duck homes, native plant restoration, installation of American and Illinois State Flags, and other worthwhile service-related projects. Annually, Boy Scout Troop 237, sponsored by the FSPD for over thirty years, leads the Super Scout Clean-Up, readying the parks for spring and summer use.

Furthering its environmental mission, the FSPD constructed a Nature Center, greenhouse, interpretive gardens, boardwalk, and bandshell at the Island Prairie Park site. The development was funded with available state grants, and within one year of its development, the interpretive gardens site was recognized by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and Chicago Wilderness, receiving the Conservation and Native Landscaping award.

The Island Prairie Nature Center plays host to environmental programming, highlighted by the FSPD’s annual Earth Day Celebration. Our competent staff harvests seed from local native plants, and annually propagates 30,000 native plugs hardened off in our adjacent arbor and planted throughout various park locations. Staff and volunteers also plant and supply the Frankfort Township Food Pantry with fresh lettuce and micro greens, a healthy alternative to the standard canned and boxed food products.

Through grants available from the Illinois Clean Energy Foundation (ICECF), the park district secured funding for high efficiency fixtures at the Community Center. In addition, ICECF grant funds enabled the addition of a wind turbine and solar panels, providing a perfect community demonstration project at the FSPD’s Nature Center facility. Energy production from solar and wind are monitored, providing a permanent record of electricity production. 120% of electricity needed for the Nature Center is provided by wind/solar power.

The FSPD is, and has been successful in attracting quality caring individuals to serve as elected commissioners. In the park district’s history, forty plus residents have committed to volunteering time and talents to their park district. Ken Blackburn has been recognized as the longest serving Commissioner, exceeding 25 years of service and counting.

The park district employs the best and the brightest, with 180 individuals filling part time, permanent part time, and seasonal positions to make the diverse library of programs, offerings, facilities, and services available.

Full time FSPD employees come uniquely qualified, graduating from various universities with diverse backgrounds and expanded professional training. Staff members are certified park professionals, graduates of NRPA Director, Maintenance, Green, and Golf Management Schools. Staff members have attended hundreds of local and state workshops, and frequently are represented at the state convention and national congress. Personnel receive advanced CPR/AED training by park staff, with 115+ employees and coaches completing certification.

Since January, 2014, the FSPD has been a member of PDRMA, a selective, self-governed risk pool, owned and controlled by members who share the responsibility for ongoing stability and growth in loss prevention. Comprehensive insurance coverage, legal advice and counsel, and worker’s compensation services assist the FSPD in providing safe environments for its patrons and employees at costs far below that of traditional insurance, furthering the FSPD’s mission of providing recreational services, facilities, and open space in a fiscally responsible manner.

PDRMA annually sponsors a Risk Management Grant and Recognition Program, with members submitting safety projects or programs that would benefit its member agencies. In the fall of 2015, the FSPD submitted for and was awarded with a $750 grant for its innovative six-module training program that is based on a red/yellow/green classification system. All agency equipment carries a red, yellow, or green designation, indicating the degree of risk involved in using the equipment. The color coding is a visual recognition that can be easily understood, and the FSPD’s red/yellow/green advanced maintenance equipment operation and training standardizes staff training, taking a practical approach to progressive equipment qualification to ensure safe operation of all FSPD equipment.

In 2015, the park district applied for and was awarded with a $10,000 grant from Openlands and ComEd for the expansion of its existing Island Prairie Park boardwalk. Through this funding source, the park district will extend access into the wetlands at Island Prairie Park, and include a 9,600 square foot native restoration area, bordering the boardwalk. The expanded boardwalk will also offer additional designated access points to the 11 acre pond, registered as a fishable location by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The award continues the park district’s environmental mission, and its goal to connect children and adults to nature.

The park district has embraced technology throughout the district, from employee work stations run by a main server, to surveillance cameras ensuring safer use of various facilities, computer labs for program participants, online registration, and the park district’s website and social media venues that keep residents fully informed on park district programming and events. A computer lab is available to park program participants and staff. These and many other expansive technological advances, too numerous to mention, ensure the FSPD services the community with the highest level of efficiencies.

Most importantly, the mission displayed and applied to all areas of operation along with the motto “the friendly park district”, serve as critical models of the service that is provided by the Frankfort Square Park District.