By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — Four years ago Jay Sandine would often offer what he called “doom and gloom” scenarios to illustrate the importance of the Rockford Park District during community engagement sessions.
“I’ll do it here tonight,” Sandine told a couple hundred people gathered Wednesday at Forest Hills Country Club for his State of the Park District speech. “Let’s just say the Park District went away, just left our community. Do you think youth crime would go up or down?”
The group — which included Park District employees, business and local government leaders and local veterans invited by the district — responded with “up” in unison.
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He made similar points about economic activity and health and wellness.
When Sandine offered those worst-case scenarios to the public in 2018, he didn’t know it would come to fruition two years later.
Then, in March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic took hold here and the district shut down nearly every program and facility it operates. It even removed tennis court nets and basketball rims from its outdoor parks.
“Guess what happened? Youth crime went up 100% instantly,” said Sandine, the district’s executive director.
“It is so important to understand the true value of the Rockford Park District and what life looked like without the Park District back in 2020,” Sandine said.
That value, he said, was the most important aspect of his 51-minute speech that he wanted the audience to remember.
His remarks also focuses on how the district has scaled back its footprint in the face of financial challenges, detailed upcoming projects and offered some personal background about his grandfather and father who were both park superintendents.
Sandine’s presentation was the final speech in a 10-month long series presented by the Parks Chamber of Commerce.
“The Rockford Park District improves the quality of life for citizens by providing a vibrant park system, which increases property values, stimulates economic development, decreases juvenile crime, and improves our communities’ health,” he said reading from the final slide in his presentation. “The Rockford Park District also protects the environment, employs thousands of area kids for the very first time, and brings the community together to enjoy life.”
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‘One of the most important facilities’
Sandine’s presentation also included the unveiling of a new 8-minute and 20-second video intended to highlight the need for a future indoor equestrian center at Lockwood Park in west Rockford.
In the video, Sandine said the center is “going to go down as one of the most important facilities and programs in the history of our organization.”
The center is designed to help youth cope with trauma, stress and other mental health issues.
“This is a critical process right now because the kids in our community are in crisis, and they’ve been in crisis for a long time,” Sandine said in the video. “That’s the heart of this project and this facility, is it’s going to reinstill kids’ confidence and self-worth.”
Lockwood Indoor Equine Center | 8 Min from Rockford Park District on Vimeo.
About $4.3 million of the $6 million needed to build the facility has been raised so far. The Perks Family Foundation, The Blazer Foundation and The Smith Charitable Trust all donated to the cause, and the Winnebago County Mental Health Board provided $500,000 in funding.
The district’s charitable foundation is working to raise the remaining money needed.
When the district conducted those aforementioned engagement sessions in 2018, residents said they wanted the focus to be on neighborhood parks, playgrounds and open spaces.
Those are the same places people flocked when the state shutdown over the pandemic, Sandine said.
He said the district has honored those requests by reducing its footprint in other places. For example, it leased the former Magic Waters to Six Flags in 2018, it sold parts of Beyer Park and Vandercook Park and its trying to sell the shuttered Elliot Golf Course in Cherry Valley.
And it’s investing in neighborhood parks, including an upcoming $630,000 project to overhaul Wantz Park with a new playground, spray pad, picnic shelter and other amenities.
He said there has been positive momentum in the city with new developments and attractions downtown, but “if we don’t invest in our kids in this town, none of that’s going to be successful longterm.”
This article is by Kevin Haas. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @KevinMHaas or Instagram @thekevinhaas.