Pritzker announces $60 million park grants, declines to endorse Chicago mayor candidate

Grant allotments put added emphasis on ‘distressed’ communities

Gov. JB Pritzker is pictured on Wednesday at Gietl Park in Springfield, where he announced nearly $60 million in land acquisition and development grants for parks and open spaces.

Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday announced the release of nearly $60 million in grant funding to help local governments develop public parks and open spaces, more than 20% of which will go to “distressed” communities.

The money through the Open Space Land Acquisition and Development grants was distributed to 118 projects, all but one ranging from $102,800 to $600,000 per grant, according a news release. The allotment to “distressed” communities – which are determined by an area’s poverty level and land value – is a roughly five-fold increase from the previous fiscal year.

The governor made the announcement at a park in Springfield that will receive $600,000 through the Springfield Park District to demolish an outdoor pool and build a modern splash pad and pool facility.

Pritzker noted that the current fiscal year marks the first time that 100% of costs in distressed communities will be covered, as lawmakers waived the cost-sharing requirement for projects in those communities that would normally apply to grantees.

“This means that places needing renewal and restoration like the city of Cairo, Illinois, which is a recipient of their first ever OSLAD grant will be able to improve their parks and their green space,” Pritzker said.

Cairo was slated to receive $599,500 in grant funding. About 59% of the grants are directed to the Chicagoland area, including Cook and its five surrounding counties. A total of 46 counties will see new projects.

At least $12.5 million of the more than $59 million in funding will go to distressed communities.

Among the other projects, the city of Benld in Macoupin County will receive $600,000 at the site of its former elementary school that was destroyed by underground mine subsidence in 2009. Peoria Park District will receive $255,000 to acquire 40 acres along the Illinois River Bluff to extend a hiking trail and conduct conservation work. It will also receive $600,000 to replace an outdoor swimming pool at its Lakeview Park with a modern splash pad and pool facility. Another $600,000 would go to the Chicago Heights Park District to build three soccer fields, new lighting and spectator seating at Commissioners Park.

This year, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the grants, contracted with the Northern Illinois University Institute for the Study of Environment, Sustainability and Energy. Through that partnership, 15 undergraduate and graduate NIU students served as supervised grant reviewers.

“One of our students shared that she and her family had enjoyed access to a brand new neighborhood park, in her small village in Illinois,” said Thomas Skuzinski, director of the institute at NIU. “And knowing that she had played a role in helping to bring that kind of opportunity to families and communities statewide, was in her words, truly life changing, and easily the most important thing that she had ever done in her life.”

The OSLAD grant program has been in place in Illinois since 1986, and the fiscal 2023 allotment is the largest in its history. Pritzker’s proposed budget for fiscal 2024 includes $56 million for OSLAD grants.

Chicago mayor race

The governor’s announcement came one day after a mayoral election in Chicago that saw incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot fail to earn a spot in the April runoff election.

“Primaries are messy. And they don’t usually illustrate the candidates’ positions on the issues all that well. And so I think it’ll be important for the candidates that made it through that primary process and now in the runoff, to articulate their positions and the contrast between their views.”

—  Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker

Instead, former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas will face Cook County Commissioner and Chicago Teachers Union organizer Brandon Johnson in the April 4 runoff. Vallas had success in more conservative areas of the city and garnered 34% of the vote, while Johnson was more successful with liberal voters and carried 20%. Lightfoot came in third with just 17%, failing to make the runoff.

Pritzker said he would not be endorsing a candidate in the runoff – at least not yet.

“Primaries are messy,” Pritzker said. “And they don’t usually illustrate the candidates’ positions on the issues all that well. And so I think it’ll be important for the candidates that made it through that primary process and now in the runoff, to articulate their positions and the contrast between their views.”

As a Chicago voter, Pritzker said, he’d be “listening and watching intently,” although he would not say who he voted for on Tuesday. He also said he had not spoken to Vallas, Johnson or Lightfoot since election night.

“The governor and the mayor of the city of Chicago have to be able to work together,” Pritzker said when asked about potential endorsements. “We saw for years, I think, under [Democratic Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emanuel and [Republican Gov.] Bruce Rauner, where they didn’t, and that wasn’t good for the state or for the city of Chicago.”

He added, “I keep that in mind every day when I think about what I say, what I do, who I endorse – how is that relationship affected by the things that I do? And I hope they’ll keep that in mind as well.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Jerry Nowicki

Jerry Nowicki – Capitol News Illinois

Jerry Nowicki works for Capitol News Illinois