Harvard is trying to add more recreation to its parks

New Parks and Recreation head is taking helm

From left, Zoey Easterline, 7, Emma Sieck, 8, Penelope Sieck, 9, and Jaedin Spitson, 10, play with a ball Saturday, July 2, 2022, during the Red, White and Blue Food Truck FEASTival at Milky Way Park in Harvard.

Harvard has 128 acres of parks, or 12 acres per 1,000 residents – giving the city more parkland-per-resident than the state average, Mayor Mike Kelly said.

What the city’s Parks and Recreation Department does not offer is much in the way of recreation. While the city does have programs via the Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association, there are few other recreation opportunities for youth or adults offered by the city. Other than the outdoor pool, the department’s only other recreation offering is a boys basketball program, City Administrator Lou Leone said.

That is something the city is working to change. On Tuesday night, the council was set to swear in Stacy Heiliger as the new parks and recreation department superintendent. She replaces Ryan Knope, who resigned in February to take a position in Wisconsin.

With a goal to expand recreational programming, the city council at its March 26 meeting approved amendments to the Milky Way Park master plan. Officials hope those changes will make the park more attractive for future Illinois Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development grants, Leone said.

The decision to upgrade the Milky Way Park plan came from “triaging” the city’s last two unsuccessful attempts to apply for the state grant program, Leone said.

That includes a contract with Christopher B. Burke Engineering of Rosemont to work with city, staff and residents for a compete plan for the park, best known as the home of Harvard’s Milk Days festival. The firm will also aid in writing the OSLAN grant in the future, Leone said.

“Just to maintain the parks has always trumped programs, but that left us with very little for programs."

—  Harvard Mayor Mike Kelly

The council also approved at that meeting the sale of a Ford pickup truck purchased in 2022 for the parks superintendent. The truck, obtained for $28,900, now has a blue book value of $36,000 to $38,000, Kelly said. It was put to auction with a $30,000 minimum bid, and the sale proceeds will go back into the park department budget.

The city also has a preliminary plan showing what it wants to add to the south end of Milky Way Park, including an accessible playground, softball and baseball fields, a realigned football field, soccer pitches, pickleball courts and other amenities.

The preliminary concept plan for Harvard's Milky Way Park

To make that happen, Kelly said, the city will need grants. The entire parks and recreation budget for the fiscal year ending April 30 is $363,000. Of that $170,000 goes to the pool, $100,000 is for salaries, $5,000 for insurance and just $5,000 is parks programming – the boys basketball program. The rest goes to maintenance, he said.

The new budget set for approvalTuesday increases the amount set aside for programs to $41,000. “We left room to create programs,” Leone said.

“The lion’s share of the parks budget is to maintenance and salaries. Just to maintain the parks has always trumped programs, but that left us with very little for programs,” Kelly said. The city has gotten some of the maintenance budget under control as the department “changes focus now, creating the programming the community is clamoring for.”

Residents have shown interest, approving a referendum in 2018 that allowed the city to continue to receive tax dollars that had gone to the pool bonds once that debt was paid off. Instead, that money now funds both the park district and the Harvard Diggins Library.

Improving Harvard’s recreational offerings was why Kelly first ran for the City Council. “I got involved with government and became an alderman, and asked to be on the parks and rec board, to try to help address this issue in the community,” Kelly said.

There are private, nonprofit groups that have started a variety of youth leagues that do use Harvard parks. But for new residents, finding and becoming involved in those programs can be a challenge.

The city does not want to take away from those programs, Kelly said. “Over the years parents banded together ... to provide those programs in the community” and have even paid for park upgrades themselves, he said.

Some of those upgrades have been a little “ad hoc,” Kelly said, including a football field positioned east-west. “The efficiency of the land use was not the best.”

With the new parks and recreation superintendent set to start, plans are to put out a catalog for the city to help those community-based recreation programs connect to residents, Kelly said. “We are not interested in taking [those programs] but to help them be more successful.”

When Kelly moved to Harvard, he began looking for recreation opportunities for his daughter.

What he quickly found out was that the city’s Park and Recreation Department was more parks than rec, and that to get his daughter involved, he’d have to do some research and figure out which community groups offered summer girls sports programs, dance or other recreation opportunities.