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Q&A: Emily Cahill discusses Peoria Park District’s summer plans, programs, and projects

Peoria Park District Executive Director Emily Cahill
Joe Deacon
Peoria Park District Executive Director Emily Cahill

Peoria Park District executive director Emily Cahill expects to have a busy summer.

The district's outdoor pools are scheduled to open next week. The “Parks On Tap” series is set to kick off this weekend. Renovation work continues at Trewyn Park. A memorial to the historic Moffatt Cemetery is expected to open by the end of the year, and the district will hold its first golf outing fundraiser later this month.

Reporter Joe Deacon talks with Cahill about several of the park district's summer projects and programs, including the future plans for Donovan Park and its development as an arboretum.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

WCBU: What led to the park district's decision to develop Donovan Park into an arboretum? How did that project come about and what's its purpose?

Emily Cahill: So it actually was led by our staff; we have a park manager at Donovan Park who has a history in trees, that's what his degree is actually in. So he came to us – actually pre-COVID – and said, “You know what, I think Donovan has enough different tree species that it's something that we should really think about looking at getting Donovan Park designated as an arboretum.” An arboretum, really what that classification is, is that it recognizes that a location has multiple varieties of trees. So at the Level 1 designation, which is what we were accredited at, we were able to show that we had at least 25 different kinds of trees.

The reason that they took the time to do that, really it's an administrative process, right? There wasn't a lot of financial investment or anything like that we didn't do anything different to make it now special. It's just a recognition of the quality of the park, and with that designation we are now eligible for different grant resources. So we can apply for grant funding that will allow us to invest in Donovan, make it better as we go. And it's something that, we didn't have an arboretum in our inventory. So it's unique, and we always like to do new things that add to the variety of offerings that we're able to provide to our community.

Do I understand correctly that it's kind of in conjunction with The Morton Arboretum up in Chicagoland?

Cahill: Yes. So there's a website, it's actually called ArbNet; I'd never been to ArbNet before this process. But yes, it is tied to that and there are different levels: You go from Level 1 all the way up through Level 4. Morton Arboretum is a Level 4; it's like the gold standard for arboretums. Certainly we aspire to move our way through at least a couple of those levels. We recognize that we aren't Morton Arboretum and we probably don't need to be, based upon what we know Donovan Park is and what its personality is. But to be able to designate the park and recognize the uniqueness of that park and be able to now access grant dollars to help us continue to make improvements, it's certainly an investment that was worth our time to make.

What else might be in the line for Donovan Park? Is the pavilion project ... is that dead, or where do we stand?

Cahill: So right now, it is not on our list of to-do’s; I have a very long list of to-do’s, and it is not on that list. As everyone hopefully remembers in October, the Pav In The Park group, they withdrew their request for our board to vote on the agreement. At that point, it kind of came off of our list. I know everybody's talking about it (and) there's some rumbling, people are talking about it; they're asking questions, they're trying to gather support. It's like none of that is happening to me.

Until an official request is made of the park district and of our Board of Trustees to take some action, they’re like everybody else in the community that are doing projects and trying to do things to make Peoria better. Until they come to us and ask us to do something, we've made no commitment (and) we are not considering any commitment. We are moving forward with our plans to make Donovan Park the asset that we believe it to be in the heart of the city.

What else is involved with those plans to improve Donovan Park then?

Cahill: So, as we look at Donovan, we will continue to enhance the natural areas there. Donovan started out pre-golf course, pre-everything, it was native prairie. So we think that it's really important that we work to restore parts of Donovan Park. We continue to improve the trail system that exists there. We are in good collaboration with our many partners: obviously Cyd’s In the Park is one of the most fun things to do in Peoria ever, right?

Keller Station, there's lots of really great things happening there. Northmoor Observatory is something everybody should do at least once a summer. So really highlighting those partnerships, as well as Donovan Sculpture Garden. That is an outstanding example of public-private partnership, and that group is working to talk about opportunities for expansion. They continue to promote that work, and we think that that connectivity between art and nature is something that's worth celebrating. So we look forward to supporting them as we move into the future.

How is this summer shaping up as far as opening the pools? Do you have enough lifeguard staff?

Cahill: We will be opening our outdoor pools; we're very excited to be able to report that. June 6 is our target open date for Gwynn Family Aquatic Center and Proctor Recreation Center’s pool. I do note, and I think it's important that people understand, that in order to make that happen, we've had to do some shuffling of things.

It is never good when we have to close an amenity for repairs or for maintenance, but it has worked this summer that because of our partnership between the RiverPlex and the Greater Peoria YMCA that in the summertime – so beginning about June 1 – we will be closing the natatorium, the AquaPlex at the RiverPlex, shifting all those guards to our outdoor locations (and) supporting the YMCA so people will still have a swim option. But during that period when the RiverPlex is down, we'll be able to maximize the number of hours available for people to swim outside.

We still have a lifeguard crisis; we are not the only ones. Actually, the National Recreation and Parks Association shared a statistic with us that only 12% of public pools across the country are fully staffed this summer. And it traces back, they did a lot of research and it was really, really interesting. I didn't think about it this way, but they shared that more than 60% of kids don't know how to swim. So if you don't take that time, if that's not something that you learn how to do as a child, for us to expect that you're magically going to become really great swimmers and want to be a lifeguard when you turn 16, that's unrealistic.

So we're having a lot of conversations with our staff about ways that we can get more kids excited and interested in swim lessons, so that we can grow those lifeguards. But it is not a quick fix. It's something that over time, we all have to figure out. It's a tough one, it really is.

When you say the pool at the RiverPlex is going to be shut down for repair, what work needs to be done there?

Cahill: Last year, we did a lot of work; it's a 20-year-old facility, and so we know that there's some of that maintenance that needs to happen. This year, what is happening during that timeframe is that the whole ceiling has to be painted and redone, because – think about any place where you are where there's water and humidity and metal. What happens? Rust.

So we've got to repaint that entire ceiling to maintain the integrity of the facility. We also know that it is time for us to do a resurfacing of the pool basins, and all of that stuff can't happen with water in the pool, right? And when you have to put all kinds of ladders and crazy and whatever in there, we have just made that decision to try to do all the maintenance work that we can – instead of in a short two-week period, where we have to close it a couple times, we're just taking that big chunk. And to have the outdoor option at the YMCA for our members and for the community, it made sense for us to collaborate to limit the impact that it had on our community during that time.

How is the renovation at Trewyn Park progressing?

Cahill: So that's a really, really tight timeline, and it is scary for our staff to say, “You know what, the city came to us and they said, ‘we have this money.’ And you're like, ‘all right.’” Then they tell you, “we have this money, and you have to spend it by November 2022,” and anybody who's familiar with how the government works knows that that's like light speed to us, right? But we are making really, really good progress.

We have ordered playground equipment, so that playground will be installed late summer. We have added and purchased the pieces for a new shelter house there. They're beginning the engineering work and design process to move those basketball courts away from the hill so people won't have to chase their basketballs down that hill anymore – even though that's a family tradition for decades for people who use Trewyn Park. But we are making progress (and) we are on schedule.

I would love to take this opportunity to thank everybody who's participated in our public input requests. We had just a great response when we reached out to say, “Which playground do you like?” The number of people who responded in a really tight timeframe from the neighborhoods that are being served by Trewyn, it was outstanding and I know our board appreciated that input as we are able to really make that park with the people who live there and work there and use they're what they want it to be. So it's on track; I hope I didn't jinx it, but it's on track and we look forward to a park that you probably won't recognize next year at this time.

You say it's on track, but we've heard in all kinds of different areas and industries right now how things are tied up a little bit with supply issues, materials. Are you experiencing any of that with this project?

Cahill: We are, and that's one of the reasons that we've pushed so hard to try to get approvals for the purchase of, for example, that playground equipment. We know that it's a 12-16 week timeline to get those things delivered, when it used to be 4-6. So by really pushing to meet those deadlines in March and April, we are working to ensure that the things will be there on time, purchased and in place by the end of that grant term.

How is the search going for a new director of the PlayHouse Children's Museum? What qualities are you looking for in an ideal candidate?

Cahill: So I have been a part of the Peoria PlayHouse Children's Museum since it was like a twinkle in somebody's eye; I was on the committee long before I came to work for the park district, and so it is like literally my fourth child. When Rebecca Shulman came to us from New York with experience at the Guggenheim and all of the just amazing experience that she brought, I felt very comfortable handing her my fourth child and saying, “make this whatever it should be,” and she has been an amazing leader of the PlayHouse. She has built an amazing foundation. She has a staff that is creative and passionate and loves the building as much as all of us who spent our time trying to build it do.

When she leaves us at the end of June, I don't even like to think about that day quite honestly. But she has been an integral part of helping us to figure out just what that structure needs to be. Certainly the expertise of the people that she has hired during her tenure mean that the job description for “a new Rebecca” – I hate to even say it that way – but a new Rebecca is slightly different than what we hired that first time around. So we've been able to focus (on) some things and she has worked really, really hard to bring together an advisory board of citizens who live here in the community whose kids support the PlayHouse, and who helped with just guidance and fundraising.

So the shift of that focus has allowed us, I think, to be creative in what we're looking for. I hope to have interviews done in the next couple of weeks; I'd love to have a little bit of time while Rebecca is still here to be able to have our new director spend some time with her. And I also hope that that new director knows that they are empowered to use that same amount of spirit and energy that Rebecca brought to make the PlayHouse what they want it to be in our community, and we look forward to what that evolution looks like. But I will forever be grateful to Rebecca for her time and her passion and the willingness to give her time, talent and treasure at the park district. She has been an amazing asset to us and we look forward to seeing what that next chapter brings for us.

What can you tell us about the plans for a memorial to the Moffatt Cemetery on the south side?

Cahill: So we have been a part of those conversations; I believe those actually started in 2020. They are a part of our (time) when it was “quiet” (in quotes) during COVID. We started having conversations with Bob Hoffer (of the Peoria Historical Society) and David Pittman, and so we've been a part of that conversation from the very beginning. We've watched as they've figured out sort of how this works. I can tell you that we have committed our in-kind capacity to be able to help with the installation of some of the monuments that are coming in this Phase One. We're working with the private group, as well as the city of Peoria and others, to figure out the long term maintenance.

But when you have something that has the historical significance that Moffatt Cemetery does, it is absolutely an injustice not to honor it. So we are so pleased to be a partner in that effort. I applaud the work of passionate folks like Bob Hoffer and others who are giving of their time to make this a reality. We all are absolutely, I think obligated to make this a reality because it is an important part of Peoria’s story, and we need to tell it.

What is the timeline? Do you know when that might be?

Cahill: You know what, I don't know; it's a good question. I know that we have approved the design of those first phase of markers that are going to go in, and so I anticipate that that will happen sometime in 2022 that will get that first phase completed. There are still some of the red tape and things that have to happen with ownership and easements and all the stuff that bores people pretty quickly. But all that has to be in place before we can install those. So, we're ready and I know Bob and Dave and everybody else are ready too. So we look forward to celebrating that sometime this year.

Are there any other upcoming projects or summer events and programming or other topics that we haven't touched on yet that you'd like to share with us?

Cahill: I will tell you that this summer, we are back. Right? Lots of super fun stuff going on. We are so excited to have our second “summer of fun,” where we're able to support kids and families in the community with free access to some of our amenities. This year we'll be supporting not only Peoria Public Schools students and their guardians or parents with free admission to the zoo, the Peoria PlayHouse Children's Museum, Owens Ice Center, the Golf Learning Center, Gwynn Family Aquatic Center, from June 1-August 31, but we're also working to make sure that any families outside of that school district who qualify for our scholarships or who are attending schools in 61603 or 61605, they're all getting a “Summer of Fun” pass. So we look forward to celebrating that with them. That to me is what we're all about: providing really quality experiences for kids and families in the community where they live – that's our job. So we're excited about that.

We've started our Parks On Tap series. So this coming weekend, June 2-3 I believe are the dates, we have Parks On Tap at Bicycle Safety Town, which was one of the favorites of everybody last year. I don't know why, like I don't know why biking and drinking was interesting, but they're so excited. So we’ll have a DJ and lots of fun stuff, but Parks On Tap, if you haven't experienced that, it is worth it. Our Parks On Tap van travels all over the community and goes into parks and has a really fun time; our PPD On The Go mobile recreation will be there as well.

And then quickly, June 9 is our very, very first – which seems so dumb – our very, very first park district golf outing. So “Playing Fore Our Parks” is our golf outing at Kellogg on June 9, and all proceeds raised from that will support our parks maintenance and trail maintenance. So it's a really good opportunity to learn about all the things that the park district offers while playing golf.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.