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Splash Park opening looks unlikely in 2015

Geoffrey Ritter
Weekend Times

The Carbondale Park District is taking its story of the stalled Super Splash Park project to Washington, D.C, this week, even as hopes dim that the pool will open this season.

Park District Executive Director Kathy Renfro and Park Board President Harvey Welch leave this weekend for the nation’s capital, where Welch is scheduled to speak at Blue Mind Five, a summit organized by scientist and water advocate Wallace J. Nichols.

Nichols, who spoke in Carbondale last month, also is the author of “Blue Mind,” which argues that human proximity to water has the capacity to draw people closer and create more happiness and health in society.

Welch, who is scheduled to speak Monday, May 11 at the Carnegie Institution for Science, said he will discuss his experiences growing up in a more segregated Carbondale, when the black children swam in Crab Orchard Lake and the white children swam elsewhere. 

“When I was a little kid, white Carbondale didn’t want to swim with black Carbondale,” Welch said. “People need to have access to water and a pool. It has the capacity of making our community do something together.”

Harvey Welch is pictured in March 2015.

Despite that potential, however, hopes for Carbondale’s new aquatic center opening anytime this summer are continuing to dwindle following the announcement in March that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources had suspended its grant funding for the project at the order of Gov. Bruce Rauner. The pool, located at the Carbondale Superblock, had been scheduled to open at the end of this month.

The Park District was notified in 2011 of the $2.5 million grant, which came with the requirement that the Park District raise matching funds totaling $625,000 to complete the project. 

In turn, the Park District launched a community-wide capital campaign that raised about $900,000 to complete the project with some added ameneties.

As it stands now, the project is about 80 percent complete, and technically, the Park District has the money to complete it. However, Renfro said making any further expenditures while the IDNR funding remains in limbo could jeopardize the entire grant, which the Park District can’t afford. As a result, park leaders have deemed waiting for the suspension to be lifted to be the most prudent way forward.

Renfro said the project right now is about 70 days from completion, which means that even with an immediate lifting of the suspension, the pool wouldn’t be able to open until the middle of the summer. 

At this point, Renfro said she has been given verbal, non-specific assurances that the IDNR funding will be restored, but she has no idea when that might be. 

She said many are preparing for the notion that the pool might not be ready to open to the public until sometime in 2016.

“I’m not confident,” Renfro said of the possibility of the pool opening this year.

But she added: “By hook or by crook, we’ll finish that pool.”

The Times reached out to Dave Sellman, the project’s grant administrator at IDNR, but he did not respond by the Times’ press deadline Friday.

During Wednesday’s rally against state budget cuts on the SIU campus, Park Board Vice President Rick Erickson also spoke to the situation, saying the pool opening’s delay has been a frustration to everyone involved, particularly following a fundraising effort that involved local community groups and governmental bodies coming together.

Erickson said that after so much work, it is difficult not to feel crestfallen about where the Splash Park stands today.

“Right now, we are trying to be optimistic despite feeling very angry and frustrated,” Erickson said. “We were so close to completing this facility. We did everything right.”

Henry: Carbondale faces 'perfect storm'

Geoffrey Ritter
Weekend Times

Carbondale’s newly seated mayor says he hopes Gov. Bruce Rauner gets a good look next weekend at SIU and Carbondale — places that have a great deal to lose in the governor’s proposed budget.

Carbondale Mayor Mike Henry, speaking Wednesday during a rally against the suggested budget cuts on the SIU campus, said he hoped to see an orderly but informative welcome for Rauner when he visits May 16 to speak at one of three SIU commencement ceremonies.

“I personally am glad he’s coming to Southern Illinois,” Henry said. “I want him to see what a beautiful campus we have, how beautiful Southern Illinois itself is, and that Carbondale and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale should not experience these cuts.”

Rauner’s proposed budget would cut state funding to SIU Carbondale by up to $44 million — a crippling number that would jeopardize programs all across the campus. Carbondale’s own state funding also is limbo, which in part prompted the city council in March to pass a 0.25 percent sales tax increase projected to generate about $1 million each year.

Henry said the city is simply trying to fortify itself against the threat of difficult cuts to state municipal funding.

“We don’t want to see it happen, but we have a budget in place that has anticipated that,” Henry said. “We actually had to pass a quarter-of-a-percent tax increase. If we get our funding, I’d like to not collect that tax increase.”

Henry said additional threats of funding to Amtrak make for “a perfect storm.”

“What I’ve been calling this is a perfect storm with cutbacks to SIU, cutbacks to Carbondale’s city funding by over a million dollars and the possibility of cutting some Amtrak services that serve Carbondale,” Henry said. “All three of those together — nobody deserves to have that.”

The new mayor added that he hoped citizens are able to deliver these messages to Rauner in a way that doesn’t antagonize him.

“I would like to see a peaceful, orderly process,” Henry said. “Make sure you hold those signs high, and make sure that he sees you.”