Come Labor Day, Doug Gaynor will be enjoying Lake Michigan from the opposite shore. The director of Parks, Recreation and Community Service is retiring at the end of the month to Muskegon in his native state of Michigan.
In an interview with the RoundTable last month, Mr. Gaynor spoke of some of his favorite projects during his 16 years of public service here and offered his own glimpse of the future of parks, recreation and community service in Evanston. He noted that, as he began his work for the City, Joseph Levy was in the process of donating $500,000 for the new Levy Senior Center, now located on Dodge Avenue. As he leaves, the Arrington family has just made a similar donation of $500,000 toward upgrades of the lagoon at Dawes Park.
Parks: Recreation and Decoration
Donations to other parks in Evanston besides these include the sculpture “Conversations” by Indira Freitas Johnson from an anonymous donor; an oak tree for each ward and a weeping willow on the island in the lagoon in Dawes Park from the Southeast Evanston Association; money raised privately for public parks, such as Noah’s Playground for Everyone in Lawson Park, at least half of the funding for which came from the Cutter family in memory of their son, Noah; and Grandmother Park in west central Evanston.
“We retain a donation book,” Mr. Gaynor said, “in part to give people ideas of what they could donate.”
Complementing private donations to Evanston’s parks are state and federal grants, he said, such as those to complete the renovation of the lagoon at Dawes Park, to replace much of the roof on the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, and to be able to distribute free lunches to income-eligible youth in four parks during the summer.
Renovation and rehabbing the parks proceed according to a plan and schedule set up by the City several years ago. Playground equipment is replaced as needed, landscapes are replenished with native plantings as much as possible, and non-glare “dark lighting” – in which the lamp casts a wide circle of light downward rather than sending out a sphere – has replaced traditional lamps in many parks. Design Evanston, a local group of architects, artists and designers, has recognized the City for these revamped parks and for the garden at the Levy Center.
The playing fields at James Park were rebuilt literally from the bottom up a few years ago. “James Park was a dump, and things from the dump resurface from time to time,” said Mr. Gaynor. “We excavated down to the membrane that covers the dump, took out dirt, put in irrigation, put in sod and seeded it. Now James Park is known as one of the best athletic fields on the North Shore,” he said.
The payoff for Parks and Recreation staff is in the fact that “we see a significant increase in park usage once a park has been renovated,” Mr. Gaynor said. “I pride myself on bringing in and maintaining a great staff: Petra Belcher, Rob Lloyd, Bob Dorneker, Christina Ferraro and Stephanie Levine. They are dedicated; they work hard. With budget cuts and more on their plates, the … level of service has not declined. The programs are filled and there are few complaints. They all know there are no bonuses. The joy is going to James Park and [knowing that] 1,800 youth are playing baseball, 2,200 youth are playing soccer, and 700 playing lacrosse. That’s the payment we get; that’s what I enjoy.”
Services to youth have been a major aspect of the Community Service division in the past couple of years. “We have put 50 youth to work with YJC training programs,” Mr. Gaynor said. “With the money we now have, I think we’re doing a good job.”
The Lakefront Master Plan, adopted by City Council in 2008, is far from having been implemented, and Mr. Gaynor says he hopes the City will follow through on it. One formerly controversial part of the plan was the construction of the restrooms/portal at Clark Street beach. The design and $1 million+ cost and the low-slung design of the building did not sit well with some aldermen and residents. The building, which has outside showers and inside restrooms and serves as an entryway to the beach, will be a prototype for other beach entries, he said.
“It was a big deal to get it passed. Some of the more outspoken individuals sent emails about the building, saying they were wrong. That was really neat and the staff appreciated that,” Mr. Gaynor said.
Mr. Gaynor said he has seen positive changes in the City during his tenure. With disparate divisions under his purview, his legacy in part will be pointing his successor to the past as well as to the future. “There are still a number of things to be done. The strategic plan for parks should be done again and the planning should be tied to programming,” he said. Different uses for parks should be anticipated, and differing, varied users should be taken into account.
Moreover, he said, “We are running out of fields.”
The biggest challenge for the City, he said, will be “continuing to address the significant underfunded infrastructure – buildings and rec centers as well as parks.” The City has been toying with replacing the Robert Crown Center, but there has been no meeting of the minds on funding, programming and responsive proposals. The project is one Mr. Gaynor said he regrets not having been able to complete.
Mr. Gaynor closed the interview with a proposal that he said might surprise some colleagues and some City Council members: “I think this community will support a parks millage – a specified amount on the property tax bill for parks. It would be a wonderful opportunity to secure the funding and not have to fight [other departments]. The City wins with this because the amount funded would be on top of the General Fund levy for operations. If you went with a new tax levy, the City would really benefit.”
Noting that there are two park districts in Evanston with separate levies on the property tax bill – Lighthouse Park District and Ridgeville Park District – he said, “Of course, we would need a referendum for this, but I think it would work.”
Mr. Gaynor’s last day of work here is Aug. 30, but he said he plans occasional visits to Evanston from across the lake.