HIGHLAND PARK, IL — Park District of Highland Park commissioners praised the work of staff and contractors who kept the district's beaches open and safe amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Rosewood Beach and Park Avenue Beach both opened in mid-June following the expiration of Gov. J.B. Pritzker's stay-at-home order.
"It's certainly been a challenging and stressful year, and I think many of us are happy to put 2020 behind us," Executive Director Brian Romes told commissioners at the park board's final meeting of the year. "There was much to be learned from this year and actually much to be grateful for and thankful for, and there were many successes throughout the year and things that we should celebrate."
Recreation Facilities Director Mitch Carr provided an overview of 2020 lakefront operations and presented recommendations for 2021, which include a new parking permit requirement for residents.
"A seasonal lakefront parking sticker would be required for residents not only at Rosewood but when we talk about other lakefront locations, it would be a requirement too," Carr said. "This is due, primarily, to the city discontinuing the city sticker, which was the previous way that we monitored access control for residents."
Separate swimming passes would be required for residents and non-residents alike.
Carr said the district wound up spending significantly more than it budgeted on staff and contractors. The district spent about $84,000 more than it had budgeted for wages and contractual services at the two beaches.
But it realized significant savings by postponing $38,000 in previously planned dredging for Park Avenue Beach — and by selling non-resident season passes.
Starting the July 4 weekend, the district stopped selling daily passes to non-residents, offering only a seasonal option. The district sold 445 of them, providing nearly $29,000 in additional revenue.
Some of that extra staffing cost went toward hired security at the beaches from early August to late September as the part-time employees called ambassadors returned to college, Carr said.
Commissioner Terry Grossberg said he enjoyed seeing the additional security on the beach.
"It became really important to pay the salary of an official looking person above and beyond our ambassadors. It may not have paid dividends literally — it paid dividends in terms of safety and security down there," Grossberg said.
"It became really, really tough down there when you had everybody from all neighboring communities and stuff trying to get down there and use our beach, and then you had our own residents who pay taxes to get down there, couldn't get in right away — not a good situation," he added. "So I know we're very well-equipped for next year."
District officials limited capacity at Rosewood Beach to 275 people and reached that cap on 10 of its first 15 days of reopening, Carr said.
Commissioner Brian Kaplan said the Rosewood Beach staff went above and beyond the call during the summer season.
"What we forgot to mention is the grief the staff got — I'll put that nicely — from people who were turned away, or shouldn't be there or people who were behaving improperly," Kaplan said. "They put up with that too, when they didn't have to."
With Rosewood packed, Park Avenue Beach got more use than normal, Carr said. District staff and contractors were pressed into service enforcing its 'no swimming' policy and preventing people from trespassing on nearby private property.
Boat launches were up from 24 in 2019 to 39 in 2020, even though the launch deck washed away in a storm early this year. District staff plan to replace it once lake levels recede further, according to Carr.
Commissioner Lori Flores Weisskopf, who is leaving the board after two terms to run for the Highland Park City Council, thanked district staff for their work.
"It's just a really special group, so thank you for all everyone has done to keep our park district moving and chugging along, and really just keeping active in people's lives. Especially, more than ever, when we really saw in the pandemic that when you lose your freedom to go outside and do activities, it makes you appreciate it more," Weisskopf said. "So I appreciate how we've done our best to keep everyone outdoors and healthy."
Three candidates are set to appear on the April 6 ballot for two seats on the park district board.
Incumbent Brian Kaplan is seeking a third term in office. Former Park Foundation board member Jen Freeman and former Highland Park Historical Society board member Joe Peddle are seeking their first terms as park district commissioners.