In March, the Urbana Park District was awarded a $2.5 million grant through the Illinois Park and Recreational Facility Construction Grant Program. That grant, along with $1.3 million in philanthropic gifts, make up a portion of the park district’s last push to fund a new health and wellness center that will be built at Prairie Park near Dr. Preston L. Williams Elementary School. The new facility will provide Urbana residents with the fitness amenities similar to those that Champaign residents now enjoy at the Leonhard Center: fitness equipment, full basketball courts and an indoor elevated track, multi-use space, group fitness rooms, and an indoor play space for kids. It also fulfills the main Health and Wellness goal in the park district’s Strategic Plan: “Improve and expand upon indoor health and wellness space (H&W space) for the community. The vision of this potential space incorporates a variety of opportunities in fitness, wellness, and athletics to promote and improve the overall well-being of community members, while providing indoor, on your own time opportunities.”
Most importantly, the location of the new center in east Urbana places it in within walking distance for residents in Savannah Green, Scottswood, and Lierman neighborhoods, as well as an elementary school that serves large numbers of Black and Hispanic students. I spoke with Cedric Stratton and Jonville Chynoweth, both members of the Urbana Park District Advisory Committee, about the development of the center’s plans and the significance of its location.
The Urbana Park District Advisory Committee is a group of citizens that the park district brings together to offer input and advice. They meet once a month, and have discussions around a certain aspect of park district planning and programming, providing a bridge between the community and park district board.
Stratton was recently elected to the Board of Commissioners, but he is not new to the Urbana Park District. “I’m a lifelong Urbana resident… I’ve done park district programs ever since I was kid going to the pool and doing soccer.” He’s worked for the park district as a summer camp counselor and after school program leader, and has spent the last year participating in the advisory committee, specifically on the Health & Wellness Facility Steering Committee, giving him a front row seat to planning for the center.
“The process has been really exciting and fun. We started off with the park district making a decision about whether this was a project that they wanted to try and pursue, making decisions about how to do that. So that was working with the architectural planning group, Farnsworth, to get a base plan for what the project would look like and how much it would cost. The park district proceeded to apply for a grant from the State of Illinois to help pay for this project. We worked with a professional group to help us with our outreach plan and how to go about trying to get these funds. The steering committee for the health and wellness center first met, around this time last year. so we’ve been working on this for at least a year, if not more.”
Stratton emphasized the importance of it’s placement in Prairie Park, adjacent to the school, saying that a lot of research went into that decision.
“We wanted a location that was easily accessible. We wanted a location that would reach a lot of different people. We also wanted to make sure that we were providing a facility that was accessible by some of our underserved community. It’s adjacent to one of the highest attended grade schools in our community, it’s adjacent to Weaver Park which is our trailhead for the Kickapoo Rail Trail…It’s just being able to build a fantastic new facility in what one could call an economically downtrodden neighborhood.”
Chynoweth is an Urbana parent and grandparent who is also invested in the Urbana Park District as a member of the advisory committee and frequent volunteer. “Anytime they needed me I was willing to help out and jump in, because I recognize the importance of these programs.”
She’s excited about the development of the center as well, and sees it as an opportunity to create a gathering space for all kinds of people:
“It’s important that we support this because it gives us an opportunity to have a community gathering location. It’s a place for everyone to go where they feel safe, where they feel welcome.”
The Urbana Parks Foundation is ready to make a final fundraising push to the public for the remaining $1.5 million needed to get the project underway. Stratton has been amazed by the philanthropic giving so far, noting that the $1.3 million was raised during a global pandemic, and hopes that enthusiasm for the project helps put them over the finish line. Though he notes, “this is a project that the park district fully intended to go through with. It was never like a pipe dream. It was always like, this is something we’re going to do and we’re going to do whatever it takes to get it done.”
Chynoweth is excited for this next phase. “I’m hoping to get some positive feedback and support in regards to this amazing opportunity for not only our youth, but young adults, older adults…everyone.”
Learn more about the project, and how to donate, at the Urbana Parks Foundation website.