Roy Gayle project lands state grant

Four Winnebago County entities are supposed to get about $1.8 million in state grants, including $612,000 to acquire the existing Roy Gayle Park.

The Roy Gayle complex includes 55 acres with seven baseball/softball diamonds (three lighted), a concession building and parking. The grant goes to the Rockford Park District as part of $25.3 million in grants for 77 local park projects announced by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has a track record of releasing grant money when it suits him politically.

Funding for the grants comes from two sources established specifically to provide money for local park projects—the state Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development program ($21.2 million) and the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund program ($4.1 million). The two matching grant programs provide up to one-half the funding for local park land acquisition and development projects. The grant program is administered by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Other Winnebago County recipients include the following:

The Village of Rockton, $396,700, to renovate and add new facilities at a 10.2-acre park on Blackhawk Avenue and Hawick Street. The existing softball diamond, soccer/football field and recreation path will be improved. New facilities include a picnic shelter with restrooms and drinking fountain, basketball courts, a boating/fishing pier and landscaping. The project also includes the donation of a five-acre parcel to expand the existing site.

Winnebago County Forest Preserve District, $476,000, to acquire 252 acres at South Bluff Road and Rockton Road adjacent to the Village of Rockton. The site lies along the Rock River and future development includes wetland and prairie restoration, hiking trails, fishing areas and parking.

The Winnebago Park District, $325,200, to develop a 26-acre site off Church Street in Winnebago. Planned development includes baseball and softball fields, horseshoe and bocce ball, sand volleyball and a playground.

The Roy Gayle grant should be cause for celebrating. “Owning that ball park and being able to keep that alive for the decades to come for another 25,000 or 30,000 children gets us pretty excited,” Tim Dimke, chief operating officer for the Rockford Park District, told WTVO-TV-17.

The park sits on land on South Meridian Road near U.S. 20 owned by Service Corporation International of Houston, which wants $1.2 million. The diamonds are on an unused portion of Willwood Burial Park, one of 1,800 cemeteries, crematories and funeral homes in the United States and Canada owned by SCI, reported the local daily.

The nonprofit Rockford Pony Baseball played nearly four decades at Roy Gayle for $1 a year, courtesy of the Gayle family, which owned the cemetery and helped develop the diamonds in 1962, according to the local daily.

Mike Broski, the league’s fund-raising chairman, said SCI bought the cemetery “from five to seven years ago,” and continued for several years to let the league use Roy Gayle for $1 a year. But in 2003, SCI put the 55 acres on the cemetery’s southern edge up for sale.

SCI has given Rockford Pony Baseball until the end of the 2005 season to get off its property. SCI wants $1.2 million, or $22,000 an acre, for the site. That’s way too much, Broski said.

“I think that if it were in the middle of Houston, it would probably be worth that. But it’s on farmland on the west edge of Rockford, without water or sewer, so it’s not worth that,” he was quoted by the local daily.

The Illinois DNR requires three appraisals before the grant money can be released. The first two came in at $3,500 and $4,500 an acre. The third is now being done, Broski said.

“We’ve already offered SCI $10,000 an acre. They turned it down. It looks like we’re going to have a standoff,” Broski said.

In Houston, SCI spokesman Robyn Sidowsky told the local daily the company would “look at the appraisals and then re-evaluate our position from there.” Sidowsky said SCI has “done everything we possibly can to help the Roy Gayle organization with this.”

But Broski said the firm has “offered us nothing. We asked them how they came up with $22,000 an acre, and they said that’s what it would go for in Houston. They said we sell land too cheap in Rockford.”

“We plan on doing some improvements to those diamonds, some additional lighting, better parking, better concessions and food service,” Dimke told TV-17. “Along with (what) Winnebago Park District envisions: Some soccer fields, football fields, playground and walking path to develop the rest of the park.”

About 1,200 youths play at Roy Gayle each season, and supporters say that’s why the park and the programs it offers are extremely important to the community.

“We estimate that without Rockford Pony Baseball at Roy Gayle Park, only 10 percent of the kids would be able to play anywhere else in the city, so that’s a lot of kids in the summer who would be idle with nothing to do,” Broski told TV-17.

Pony Baseball has raised about $400,000, said Broski, and officials are confident the remaining dollars will trickle in. A formal offer on the park is expected to be made after the third appraisal, in the next couple of months.

When completed, the entire project in Rockton’s Settlers Park will cost close to $700,000, Terri Flodeen, a trustee for the village, told the Beloit Daily News. The village has secured $47,000 in donations for the park.

“We hope to make it diverse,” said Flodeen. “Not only can people go down there to exercise, but they can take their lunch down there over the noon hour, sit and enjoy the park.”

The other Rockton project to receive funding will include wetland and prairie restoration, hiking trails, fishing areas and parking. With the help of the Natural Land Institute and the estate of the late J. Norman Jensen, the land was purchased in 2004. Money from the DNR will be used to restore the land to its natural state.

Once restored, the preserve will include foliage and wildlife. Trails will lead through the property to the Rock River, where citizens can fish or observe the wildlife. The Winnebago County Forest Preserve District will be responsible for the upkeep of the land.

Some other area entities also received the following grants:

Genoa Township Park District (DeKalb Co.), $192,900, to develop a new 4.11-acre neighborhood park on Madison Street. Amenities will include an interpretive/walking path, playground, picnic pavilion and landscaping.

DeKalb County Forest Preserve District, $70,000, to further develop Potawatomi Woods Forest Preserve with water service, picnic shelters, interpretive trail with signage and an observation deck, play equipment, a canoe launch and landscaping.

Sycamore Park District (DeKalb County), $306,400, to develop a 13-acre park site which includes a 9-acre pond. Amenities include a fishing pier, picnic shelter, parking area, a multi-use trail around the site and a bike/pedestrian bridge over the Kishwaukee River for a path connection to the north.

Hebron Township (McHenry Co.), $246,100, to develop a new 10-acre community park east of the Village of Hebron, adjacent to the Hebron Trail. Park amenities will include picnic shelters, baseball and soccer field, restroom facility and access to the trail.

McHenry County Conservation District (McHenry Co.), $750,000, to acquire a 219-acre oak woodland area on O’Brien Road. The acquisition will add to a 390-acre existing area known as Bailey’s Woods west of Hebron. This project will preserve greenway along the upper reaches of the North Branch of the Nippersink Creek.

From the April 6-12, 2005, issue

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