H-F Park District marks 50 years of success

Homewood-Flossmoor Park District, selected the  2018 gold medal winner in parks and recreation, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Anniversaries are times of reflection, and the Chronicle is looking back on how the H-F Park District came to be and grow into the many programs, facilities and staff that have made a difference in our community.

In the beginning
In 1967, Homewood and Flossmoor each had their own park districts. 

Neither district could afford to hire a person to coordinate programs and purchase land, so the boards decided they’d experiment through a joint agreement to share a parks director. 

Having watched the community come together to found Homewood-Flossmoor High School, the park boards believed the community would be receptive to this idea.

When Michael Pope was hired as the first executive director of both park districts that November, there were 10 parks in Homewood and two in Flossmoor. 

In short order, Pope set out a vision for the park districts to expand their reach and develop new programs. 

After a year on the job, both boards decided the plans Pope laid out were mutually beneficial. The plan was approved at a joint meeting in December 1968 when trustees from both boards approved the merger. 

The Homewood-Flossmoor Park District was official as of Jan. 1, 1969. The first commissioners — three from Flossmoor and two from Homewood — worked with Pope to carry out future plans:  
  •  Acquire and develop park land
  •  Develop a well-trained staff
  •  Communicate with the taxpayers
  •  Construct facilities
  •  Create leisure programs
 
“Without a doubt, this shows a great deal of foresight on the part of both boards. The real benefactors of this merger will be the present and future citizens of the two districts,” Joseph J. Bannon of the Office of Recreation and Park Resources at the University of Illinois told a local reporter in January 1969.

Developing a park system
“The first big acquisition was the Dolphin Lake property,” Pope explained in a letter to Debbie Kopas, who serves today as executive director of the H-F Park District. Dolphin Lake was a private facility at the corner of 183rd Street and Governors Highway. The district got the 8.5-acre site for $175,000 in February 1970 that included a lake, a swimming pool with bath house and a meeting center.

Pope continued: “Then I convinced the board to go into debt with revenue bonds to build the indoor tennis facility (Phase I of today’s H-F Racquet & Fitness Center), and a year or so later, ground was broken on the ice skating facility on (H-F High) school district property.”

In 1972, The board acquired land at the corner of Western Avenue and Vollmer Road jointly with Olympia Fields to develop the Irons Oaks Environmental Learning Center, named for Betty Irons, the park board’s vice president, who was instrumental in its development.

Between November 1967 and April 1973, recreational programs jumped from five to 140 and the park district’s footprint more than doubled.

In 1976, it purchased Lions Club pool from the local Lions Club.

The park district developed Leavitt Park in Flossmoor after purchasing and demolishing the old Leavitt School in 1984.

Major gift from Richard Irwin
In 1985, Richard D. Irwin, the founder of Irwin Publishing, gave the park district a $2 million gift. The money was used to purchase former school property along Ridge Road at Highland Avenue in Homewood, site of the Richard D. Irwin Park and Marie Irwin Community Center, opened in September 1986.

In 1988, Irwin helped underwrite the purchase of Ridge School at Ridge and Gottschalk. Once the building was demolished, the board developed the west end of Irwin Park with a fountain, gazebo and playground.

The last piece of property adjacent to the park was purchased in 1989 and the building was torn down in 2000, completing the park. 

Donation from Dr. Alan Goldberg
In 1994, a $240,000 gift from Dr. Alan Goldberg, in honor of his wife, Dr. Gretchen Goldberg, helped the park district purchase a site on Flossmoor Road just west of Kedzie Avenue. The site was developed into a playground area and location of the park district’s offices.

Keep It Green
Citizens headed up the Keep It Green referendum in 1998 to convince voters that three sites should remain open space. With 67 percent voter approval, the park board sold $12 million in bonds enabling it to purchase a former golf course in Flossmoor in 2003 and redevelop it into Coyote Run Golf Course; the takeover of the former U.S Army Nike site on 187th Street at Center developing it as Patriots Park; and the purchase of the former Hines Lumber site along Harwood Avenue and develop it into Millennium Park.

Dolphin Lake Clubhouse
In 2010, the park board made the difficult decision to close Dolphin Lake pool. The aging facilities would cost too much too repair. The pool and buildings were demolished in 2015 to make way for the $2.7 million Dolphin Lake Clubhouse, the last major facility built by the park district. 

Today’s H-F Park District
Today park commissioners are responsible for a $13 million budget for the park district. Throughout the year, more than 600 full- and part-time staff maintain 31 parks and 17 facilities and offers hundreds of programs serving residents of all ages with varying interests. The park system has received recognition and numerous state and national awards for its efforts over the years. 

The park district’s message is simple: parks are what bring the community together to meet and connect with one another.  Whether you enjoy sitting on a park bench, swinging on a summer’s day, listening to music at a free outdoor concert, or playing a pick-up game of basketball, the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District aims to please.
 
Provided photos.
 

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