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Winter wonderland becomes blizzard of paperwork

Thursday, June 28, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Phil Kadner

Ron Urban -- the magic man of Palos Heights -- had a grand plan for a winter wonderland in the Cook County Forest Preserves.
A magician who has staged ice shows around the world, Urban read about the deterioration and neglect of the toboggan slides at Swallow Cliffs and had one of those cartoon-like moments where a light bulb pops up above the cranium.
He came up with a plan for a Swiss-style chalet concession stand selling food and beverages; an ice-skating rink open from November to March; a roller rink during the summer months; snow blowing equipment to make the toboggan runs operational when Mother Nature fails; and bobsleds on wheels that would run down an artificial surface the rest of the year.
A plan nearly identical to Urban's was presented to Cook County board members by a fellow named Shawn Temple, who turned out to be a former business partner and campaign manager of board member Elizabeth Gorman (R-Orland Park).
Urban provided me with the places, dates and times of his meetings with Gorman.
Soon after that information appeared in this column, Urban was told he would be invited to bid on the winter wonderland project.
But after a recent meeting with officials from the Cook County Forest Preserve District, Urban telephoned to express some reservations.
The request for proposal, which outlines the conditions for bidding on the project, is more than 40 pages.
Bidders are asked to demonstrate how they plan to make money on the project and how they plan to spend that money. Included must be estimates of the amount of money the bidder plans to share with the forest preserve district.
Fair enough.
In addition, the RFP (request for proposal) states that the bidder is expected to pay for routine garbage disposal, maintenance, utility bills and insurance.
"Any capital improvements or major repairs that may be required for the successful operation of the Recreational Facility will be the responsibility of the Operator of the Facility," the proposal states.
During construction, all waste disposal must be paid for by the winning bidder.
Again, none of this seems unreasonable to me.
Urban has a slightly different view.
He said he initially planned to invest about $300,000 in his winter wonderland project, using a bank loan for financing.
He wasn't planning to have the garbage picked up. I guess he thought the county would do that for him, since his attraction would benefit the forest preserve district.
Urban thought the county's insurance program would cover any lawsuits due to injury.
"With all these costs mounting, you're talking about an investment now of from $750,000 to $1 million," Urban said. "I'm not sure I could come up with that kind of money."
And then Urban mentioned the "poison pill."
"Under the terms of the agreement the forest preserve district wants me to sign, they could provide me with a written notice that I was out of business and I would have to shut down without 90 days," Urban said.
"Who in their right mind is going to loan me $1 million to build this project if the forest preserve district, without cause, can shut me down on 90 days notice?"
Indeed, the proposal states:
"Upon 90 days written notice delivered by the district to concessionaire, if for any reason the district believes, in its sole discretion, that operation of the concession by the concessionaire is no longer in the best interest of the district (the contract is terminated)."
There's another provision that says the concessionaire can be booted out with only 30 days notice if he has breached any of the conditions of his contract.
It does appear to me that these conditions would apply to the operation of concessions -- not to the operation of the entertainment venues -- but I am no lawyer, and neither is Urban.
In any case, the county seems to be saying, "if we want to shut you down, we will" -- and since this is Cook County, you have to wonder what would happen if a concessionaire failed to give "campaign contributions" to the right people.
Urban said he plans to submit a bid for the project.
He said another fellow interested in building the wonderland showed up at a pre-bid meeting at the forest preserve district offices Temple (representing a business called All-Seasons Extreme).
I think most of the paperwork, while complex, is reasonable.
Same with most of the conditions.
But is everyone really going to have to meet those conditions -- or, will officials look the other way if some bidders fail to adhere to all the provisions?
Urban envisioned a winter wonderland.
My guess is he'll end up with a snow job.

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