Smile Politely

Questions for candidates: Michael Walker for Urbana Park District Commissioner

Municipal elections are happening April 2nd, and there are a variety of local positions up for grabs. We came up with some questions for candidates in several of these races, and will be publishing their answers as they respond. Smile Politely doesn’t generally endorse local candidates, and these interviews are not endorsements. Hopefully, they will provide you readers with some insight into the importance of local races, and help you develop a sense of which candidates share your values. We’ve reached out to those running for Champaign and Urbana school boards and park districts, Champaign City Council, Mayor of Champaign, and Parkland Board of Trustees.

The Urbana Park District Board of Commissioners oversees the operations of the Urbana Parks. It’s made up of five members, and members are elected to serve six year terms. This election cycle there are three candidates running for two positions. Michael Walker has been on the Board of Commissioners since 1983, and is currently Board President. 

Smile Politely: As a long time board member, what successes can you point to during your tenure? Why should voters elect you for another term?

Michael Walker: I have contributed to creating and maintaining an open board that solicits and listens to community input to be sure we are in tune with the needs and expectations of the community. Successes during my time on the board include:

  •  I am particularly proud of the evolution of Meadowbrook Park.  When first elected to the board, there were about five acres of restored prairie there and, except for the farmstead, out buildings, and creek corridors, the remainder of the 130 acres were being farmed. (The farm income was being set aside for future development.) The work of many people, over many years brought a sufficient combination of grants, private donations, volunteer efforts, and UPD’s own capital funds to transform Meadowbrook into the signature community asset it is today.
  • The highly regarded swimming pool at Crystal Lake Park, the Family Aquatic Center, resulted from a successful effort to pass a tax referendum and a community-wide design process to be sure it would meet the needs of Urbana uniquely.
  • We successfully passed a referendum to replace the dangerously outdated and inefficient operations building in Crystal Lake Park with a modern facility on Kerr Avenue that improves working conditions for our staff and brings cost-efficiencies in district maintenance and operations.
  • I served on the founding committee that created the Urbana Parks Foundation. The foundation is now in its 10th year of operation and is engaged in a $2 million fundraising campaign to bring in private funds to help the Park District serve Urbana’s park and recreation needs. 
  • The Urbana Indoor Aquatic Center is an example of governmental cooperation that has served the community well for many years. Located at the Urbana High School/Urbana Middle School campus, the pool was jointly built by the school district and park district after a successful referendum. The Urbana Park District manages the pool and provides aquatics expertise, on a shared cost basis.
  • Another important example of governmental cooperation during my tenure is the formation of C-U Special Recreation over 30 years ago.  This joint effort of the Urbana and Champaign Park districts provides recreational opportunities for our residents at all levels of physical and intellectual abilities and challenges.
  • After our Thorburn building (a repurposed school building) used for a range of recreation programs was discovered to be structurally unsound, we put together a combination of grants with a significant donation from Phil Knox, and the district’s capital funds to build the Phillips Recreation Center on that site. We were also able to more than double the size of the Anita Purves Nature Center.
  • Important land acquisition and development efforts during my tenure include:  adding Busey Woods to Crystal Lake Park, expanding and redeveloping King Park, acquiring the land and developing Crestview and South Ridge Parks, expanding and renovating Victory Park, and purchasing and then developing Weaver Park.

I hope the voters of Urbana will find that I have served them well during my time on the board and deserve their support for another term. In addition to the successes I have helped achieve, I offer the community proven leadership, institutional knowledge, a solid understanding of our finances, and an awareness of the challenges we face going forward.

SP: When considering the Urbana Park District budget, what are your top three spending priorities?

Walker: I have three areas of focus:

  1. Meeting the needs of the underserved populations of Urbana. We are two years into a process of identifying the barriers to participation faced by various constituencies in our community such as affordability, accessibility, transportation, etc. and we are applying additional resources toward solving some of those issues.
  2. The south end of Crystal Lake Park is in need of serious attention. We have attracted nearly $1M of grants and outside funding which we will combine with UPD capital funds. As soon as the coming construction season gets into full swing, you will see work begin on a new multi-purpose path along Park Street and the initial phases of shoreline restoration and other changes to Crystal Lake to improve water quality, eliminate invasive and overgrown plantings, and improve overall appearance and access.
  3. Our planning surveys always show walking and bicycle paths to be near the top of community desires. We are working with the City, the Forest Preserve District, and the Regional Planning Commission to improve connections from the Kickapoo Rail Trail to/from Weaver Park, and from there west and south into Urbana.

SP: Is there a park district facility that you feel is under-utilized? How could you bring more programming and people to that site?

Walker: Our parks across the community are used fairly intensively as measured by our systematic observations and surveys. We have a regular cycle for updating playgrounds in our parks in rotation. Each update involves neighborhood input and planning.

On the site we lease from the sanitary district on Perkins Road where the dog park is located, there is an area of wetlands closer to the Saline Branch that is not yet open for public use.  The sanitary district has been providing funding for several years, and the Urbana Park District has been overseeing remediation and wetlands restoration. The next phase of that work will start soon. Eventually, we hope to have a significant wetland natural area there that will serve as a complement to the prairie at Meadowbrook and the woodland at Busey Woods. Just as Meadowbrook was developed over decades, it will be some time before this park is ready, and the opportunity is an exciting one for our community.

SP: What do you think the UPD is doing well in terms of making its programming and facilities accessible and inclusive for all residents: racially, socioeconomically, physically. What can be improved upon?

Walker: We are two years into a process of identifying barriers to participation experienced by various constituencies in our parks and programs, be it affordability, language, transportation, etc. Working with U of I experts and others, we have already come up with new ways of reaching underserved residents and we will be continuing this effort.

We jointly established CU Special Recreation (CUSR) with the Champaign Park District over 30 years ago to help address the recreational needs of those with physical and intellectual challenges.  CUSR runs its own programs, and we also use inclusion aides that they train to support individuals who wish to participate in UPD run programs. The Urbana Park District has an ongoing ADA compliance review process, and we regularly eliminate barriers when we do new work in our parks and facilities. Through our long time partnership with with the AMBUCS Club, AMBUCS Park has become a model “all abilities” destination in Urbana. 

SP: What is your favorite Urbana park and why?

Walker: We have over 20 park sites, so it’s difficult to name a favorite!  I think our two signature parks — Crystal Lake/Busey Woods and Meadowbrook — are terrific bookends for the community. Each offers easy access to natural areas and other great features. I am proud of how Meadowbrook has evolved during my time on the board from mostly farmland, with just five acres of restored prairie, to being the destination park it is now.  I am also proud of the changes at Crystal Lake with the addition of Busey Woods, the expansion of the Anita Purves Nature Center, and the new pool/Family Aquatic Center. As soon as the construction season begins in earnest, there are more major improvements coming at Crystal Lake to improve the quality of lake water and provide a new multi-purpose path.

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