District will negotiate for contract to run toboggan slides
Friday, November 18, 2005
by Jonathan Lipman
Although concerned about too much development on Cook County forest preserve land, commissioners began Thursday negotiating for a districtwide concession contract that will restore the popular toboggan slides.
"We aren't a park district, and we aren't an amusement park — we're something different," said Commissioner Carl Hansen, the strongest critic of the proposed deal with Urban Concession Managers. "You're dealing with something extremely dangerous to the open-lands concept."
Urban Concessions, a subsidiary of the national management company Urban Retail Properties, proposes taking over all concessions at the district in exchange for a share of the revenue.
The district board's finance committee voted to allow district Supt. Steve Bylina to begin negotiating a contract. Commissioner Earlean Collins (D-Chicago), saying she had unanswered questions about the financial details, voted "present."
General manager Ryan Hallihan told commissioners the company has many ideas for concessions, but all of them would go before the board for approval.
He said the company was "very cognizant" of the district's role in land preservation.
First up is to tackle the slides at Swallow Cliff Forest Preserve, which are closed for the second winter in a row because of their dilapidated condition. Fixing them will cost up to $1.5 million, officials have said. Urban Concessions said it will seek vendors who will fund that repair work as part of the deal.
"We put the toboggan slides at the top of the list," said Judith Jacobs, the company's vice president for leasing. "I grew up in Palos, and Swallow Cliff is very personal to me."
The company already has found several vendors interested in operating at the slides year-round, she said.
"We want to have some activities that are not dependent on weather," Jacobs said. "Festivals, hay rides, sleigh rides, Santa Claus, all sorts of things that would bring people to those area, which as you know are beautiful areas."
Hallihan touted the company's success in running concessions at the Chicago Park District, which it took over 10 years ago. Revenue has increased 51 percent since the first year it took over, he said.
But that's misleading, said Erma Tranter, president of the Friends of the Park organization. She said revenue may have gone up in recent years, but were actually better when the Chicago Park District ran concessions itself.
"You have to go very carefully into this negotiation," Tranter said. "The district can do this on its own and you can control the mission."
Hallihan said he had no information on how much the park district made before his company took over.
Financial terms of the company's contract with the forest preserve district have not been negotiated, but its deal with the city gives the park district between 65 percent and 80 percent of the revenue from concessions.