De-privatize platform tennis ball courts in River Forest

Opinion: Columns

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Bob Ray

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Eight years ago the River Forest Park District Board of Commissioners made a decision that turned part of the public parks into private space — available for use solely though payment of membership fees. That bad decision is resurfacing again now and creating more division within the community.

In 2012, after much lobbying by a small but dedicated group of platform/paddle tennis players, the park district board agreed to build two paddle tennis courts at Keystone Park (thereby eliminating a tennis court) with the proviso that paddle tennis participants would buy exclusive memberships and pay user fees in order to play. 

Five years later in 2017, paddle tennis players again lobbied commissioners and two more courts were added, once again using exclusive membership fees as funding and once again reducing the number of public tennis courts available to all. River Forest residents who don't buy memberships are now prohibited from using the paddle tennis courts — subject to fines and ticketing if they do.

Those previous decisions, predictably divisive, were a clear break from the past practice in the village. Tennis, pickle ball, volleyball and bocce courts are available to all residents without membership requirements and are built and maintained primarily via park district taxes.

While the ultimate result of these decisions is of benefit to paddle tennis players, the other very predictable consequences totally changed the dynamic of what publicly funded parks are supposed to be.

In real and actual effect, the River Forest board has:

• turned public park space into a private membership club primarily for adults,

• told the majority of residents that certain parts of their public parks are now off limits to them unless they buy a membership,

• created private club exclusivity for those who do purchase a membership,

• caused division and divisiveness within the community between residents who want public park spaces to be open and available for everybody and those who benefit from the exclusivity that the private membership fees provide.

Paddle tennis players now want even more of the available public space. They are asking the current park board to conduct a feasibility study for additional expansion. They say the sport is growing, so they need additional courts and a new warming hut. They claim non-member residents will not be harmed because they propose to pay for the next round of changes, again, through their exclusive membership fees.

That is exactly the way such changes would be proposed and funded if they were being brought to the board of directors of a private club.

But River Forest parks are not a private club, or at least they're not supposed to be. They are a taxed public entity, a public trust, with property and programs primarily paid for by all taxpayers and intended for the non-exclusive benefit of all residents. 

If the current River Forest park board believes more paddle tennis courts are warranted, so be it. They should approve them and fund them — build the courts, open the doors, pay for the changes through taxes and tell all residents they are welcome to use their parks and their courts as they see fit.

But turning more public park space for everyone into more private membership space for the few is divisive and wrong. It violates the very purpose of a public park. You don't need a feasibility study to know it.

Bob Ray is a resident of River Forest.

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Reader Comments

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Bob Ray  

Posted: September 18th, 2020 1:17 PM

Monica: Thank you for your feedback and for posting your viewpoint. I do hope others will take note and do likewise.

Monica Sheehan  

Posted: September 18th, 2020 12:38 PM

Bob, You are to be commended for highlighting what appears to be an example of extreme overreach and misuse of taxpayer dollars by the River Forest Park District Board of Commissioners dating back to 2012. It's an unbelievable story, turning over public park land to a private club. And, if a comment on a 9/11/20 Wednesday Journal news story, "Platform tennis debate heats up in River Forest" is correct, three of the five commissioners voting on the current issue are actually members of the Platform Tennis Club Group. They should recuse themselves from voting on any issue relevant to the group. It's an obvious conflict of interest. Compounding the issue further is the fact that 64% of respondents in the park district's 2020 survey don't support the proposal to build two additional courts and a paddle hut. If River Forest residents want to contact the commissioners, here's a link to the website with their email addresses: https://rfparks.com/board-of-park-commissioners

Bob Ray  

Posted: September 18th, 2020 10:38 AM

(continued) ? shared with others, including platform tennis members, that I believe this situation can be resolved successfully in a way that adds platform tennis courts, adds a warming hut, preserves times of exclusivity for platform tennis members, doesn't cost anything to taxpayers, but still opens the doors of platform tennis to lower income residents, moderate income residents, seniors, more children and others who may want to play platform tennis on occasion (or only once a year) but don't want to play all the time and/or don't want to be a member of a club. That seems to me to be the possibility of a pretty fair solution. So if anyone else wants to talk to me about it, then please call me or email me. I suggest that you do so pretty soon because I am becoming insane at a fairly rapid pace.

Bob Ray  

Posted: September 18th, 2020 10:37 AM

Chris: Thank you. I'm glad my clarification was helpful. If you'll permit me, let me add a couple more thoughts for your consideration and for anybody else who's keeping up with this issue. First, I genuinely appreciate that you agree with me and that you are "not directly affected." That probably echoes the situation of 11,000 other nice and polite River Forest residents who believe they have "no direct interest" in paddle tennis or, maybe even, no direct interest in their public parks. (I would quibble with you that you are not directly affected, but that is another matter for another time.) If you "tend to agree" with me that public parks should be open and available at least "sometimes" for every resident, if you agree with me that we can be a better village if we open up more inclusion opportunities for more people to enjoy their parks, then I ask you to do something besides just agree with me. I don't even care what you do. Just do something other than nothing. Don't quietly and secretly nod your head in agreement with me and then do nothing. (I'm not talking about you, Chris. You did your part by posting in the Journal. Thank you.) Please share your thoughts with the park district commissioners, the village president, a neighbor, a friend. Post another comment in the Wednesday Journal, attend a River Forest Village Board meeting, or a Park Board meeting (socially distant and/or online). Please DO something other than nothing. The only way this issue can be truly and honestly resolved without hurt feelings and/or further division is if village leaders are convinced that they should step in and do the right thing for everybody whether or not it's 100 percent popular with every single resident in the village. Doing the right thing is not always universally 100 percent popular, but it's still the right thing. For the record, I have ?

Chris Marti from River Forest  

Posted: September 18th, 2020 6:36 AM

Bob Ray, thank you for your additional comments. I live a few blocks from the paddle tennis courts so I'm not directly affected by them. I do believe that private clubs belong on private property, so I tend to agree with you that the village needs to re-think the situation.

Ates Dagli  

Posted: September 17th, 2020 2:55 PM

This proposal to further privatize public park spaces in River Forest is deeply flawed on several grounds. In addition to violating the principle that public spaces ought to remain open to all and blatantly ignoring the opposition of most respondents to the Park District survey, the finances of the deal amount to the hidden taxpayer subsidy of a private club. If fees are indeed sufficient to pay for building and maintaining members-only facilities, paddle tennis enthusiasts should have no difficulty setting up a private club on private property -- bought at market prices and developed with private funds. As Maryanne's figures illustrate, claims that the project would be "self-funding" cannot be taken seriously.

Gregg Kuenster from Keystone Park   

Posted: September 17th, 2020 10:41 AM

Is this legal? A reasonable person would assume the intention is to exclude people. I live next to the paddle board courts. Most times they are vacant. It looks as though the Old Guard wants to build a clubhouse for themselves with public funds. Alcohol may be present. Families with children, minorities and poor are not welcome. Barred from public space. Prohibited from access to the park. Why not support the FLW building at the non-profit RF tennis club? The tennis club is looking for support.

Bob Ray  

Posted: September 17th, 2020 9:15 AM

Continued ..Again, I believe that as long as paddle tennis remains for members only, it excludes a lot of residents who should have every right to use the public park land and facilities they've paid for for generations. I do not believe we are stuck with "members only" just because that's how it was designed in the beginning. I believe there may be thoughtful, affordable, doable ways to open up the River Forest platform tennis experience to more members of the public without asking taxpayers to foot the bill. I believe in so doing we can build a better, more inclusive, more welcoming village for the next generation of platform tennis players. But it will take a modification of vision and current policy in order to do so. So, that's my case in a nutshell. I don't know you. If you are a village resident who believes that platform tennis at Keystone Park should be reserved for an exclusive membership group, then I am not on your side. I think you are wrong. I think that belief reflects poorly on our parks. And I don't think it reflects well on our village or on the platform tennis community. But if you happen to find yourself in at least partial agreement with me, then I'd appreciate your support in urging village officials to open the doors of platform tennis. I may not have all the ideas of how to do so, but I'm sure they can be found if we will only try. If you want to email me, my address is bob.ray812@sbcglobal.net. My mobile phone number is (312) 533-1176. I'm not available for awhile, but I'll get back to you ASAP. Bob Ray

Bob Ray from River Forest  

Posted: September 17th, 2020 9:07 AM

Chris, I'm the writer of the opinion piece. I don't expect to speak for anyone other than myself. So I'd like to offer my perspective. River Forest is a nice community, full of nice and well-meaning people. If an issue such as the platform/paddle tennis "disagreement" doesn't immediately and directly impact most residents, they'll leave it alone without much further thought as to what it actually means for the village. So maybe I was wrong. Maybe it's not a controversy. But I believe it should be. That way we address the issue and can make it better. In my opinion, the River Forest Park District Board, good people one and all, made a poorly reasoned decision in 2012 that set some bad policy for River Forest paddle tennis ?" bad policy that reflects poorly on our community today and divides us into camps: those who enjoy the benefits of a "members only" paddle tennis experience and those of us who believe the public parks should be available for everyone regardless of low income or moderate means or even sporadic use. I totally understand the physical, social and community benefits of platform tennis. I get it. But we, as a village, have done a very poor job of trying to open the platform tennis courts for greater public use by those who may want to enjoy platform tennis but don't have or can't afford to spend $238 to $281 for a membership. The price of entry to River Forest Platform tennis is exclusionary at the very time in our history when we, as a village, should be endeavoring to be more open and inclusionary. That, by the way, in my opinion, is what will grow the sport. So what does this mean? River Forest platform players know that taxpayers are not willing to pay for new courts. They want some new courts and a warming hut. I get that, too. But they want the courts for "members only" use. Again, I believe that as long as paddle tennis remains for members only, it excludes a lot of residents who should have every

Chris Marti  

Posted: September 17th, 2020 6:30 AM

What are the specifics of the divisiveness in the community referred to in this piece?

Maryanne Woo from River Forest  

Posted: September 16th, 2020 6:25 PM

I totally agree with you Bob. In 2016, the RF Park District paid for an architect to draw up plans for a warming hut. The quote came out to $577,902 - $583,899 depending on the options. According to Redfin today (9/16/20), the average cost of a home in River Forest is $596,000. The construction quote to add the two additional courts in 2017 was $160,000. I don't know what the actual cost was. In 2016, the total amount collected in membership dues was $34,338. At that time, there were a total of 184 members, 117 RF residents and 67 non-residents (63% RF residents). Assuming the construction costs were $160,000, that means the RF Park District spent $1,367.52 per each of the 117 RF paddleball members in 2016 - not including the additional operating and financing costs for those two courts. Now, three years later, the RF Park District wants to hire yet another architect to design yet another plan for additional courts and a warming hut, and they want to move the batting cages, and move the tennis courts. For a private club that is not open to all River Forest residents. All comments on the DRAFT strategic plan can be emailed to msletten@rfparks.com.

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