Work on stairs under way, but toboggan slides are stalled
Thursday, June 01, 2006
by Jonathan Lipman
A plan to turn over management of the Cook County Forest Preserve District's dilapidated toboggan slides to a private contractor is months behind schedule.
The district board told officials to broker a deal with Urban Concession Managers last November. But negotiations between the district and the company haven't started yet.
"We haven't started speaking directly with Urban Concessions yet," said Vito Benigno, the district's superintendent for permits and recreational activities. "We wanted to make sure we had a comprehensive plan on our part with what we wanted to do, where we wanted to go."
The district issued requests for proposals a year ago that sought a private management company to hire vendors. Those vendors will fix up and operate the slides at Swallow Cliff and run all other district amusements, such as ice cream sales and boat rentals.
Urban Concessions won the bidding and said getting a vendor to fix up the popular slides was its first priority — once the company had a deal signed.
Benigno said his staff spent the winter trying to get a handle on what kind of amusements they wanted in the forest preserves.
"There wasn't another forest preserve out there that had a comprehensive vendor plan that we could use as a model," Benigno said. "We had to make sure it didn't compromise the mission of the forest preserve. We don't want orange and yellow lights flashing up and down."
The district couldn't begin financial negotiations on a contract until it had decided what things would be allowed, he said.
District staff also spent time talking to Friends of the Forest Preserve and Friends of the Parks, Benigno said. Both advocacy groups said they were concerned about too much commercial development on what is supposed to be pristine land.
Benigno said he originally hoped for a signed deal with Urban Concessions by mid-summer, but now it likely won't be in place until September or October. He still hopes the toboggan slides, which have been closed the past two winters due to disrepair, can be open by late 2007 as originally planned.
"The slides is probably the one area where we know where the interest is (from vendors)," Benigno said.
Forest Preserve Commissioner Elizabeth Gorman (R-Orland Park), who represents the area around the slides, said she had been told the project was moving ahead.
"Urban Concessions has been ready to negotiate since November. This is ridiculous," Gorman said. "We have to ask (district staff) what they've been doing for a year ... this puts us out another winter."
But plans are moving ahead for repair to the limestone stairs next to the slides. District officials will brief interested bidders Friday.
"We hear about the stairs from a lot of people," district building architect Jim Havlat said. "They're pretty popular."
The patched and crumbling stairs will be replaced and topped with new limestone, Havlat said, and a new metal handrail will be installed. They'll be closed off for a few months in late fall and construction should be finished by the end of the year.
Walking or jogging up and down the stairs is a popular workout regimen in the area, in part, because the stairs are not all the same height, Havlat said. Although some of the step heights will be made more even, the stairs will still grow shallower at the top and bottom.
"We're trying to be sensitive to that ... everyone likes these things the way they are," Havlat said.
The stair reconstruction is part of a $50 million bond-funded improvement plan. Gorman praised the work on the stairs Wednesday, although she voted against the bond package when it was approved.
"I voted against it because it was a tax increase," Gorman said. "But you can't argue when it's being spent on the improvements."