News Local/State

Dissolving Rantoul Park District May Be Harder Than Backers Thought

Sign at entrance to Brookhill Golf Course

A sign marks the entrance to the Rantoul Park District's Brookhill Golf Course, located north of Rantoul. Jim Meadows / Illinois Public Media

One of the goals of Governor Bruce Rauner’s Turnaround Agenda is to reduce the number of local units of government --- which Illinois has more of than any other state. 

Voters in the Champaign County town of Rantoul approved the dissolution of one of those local governments in the recent election. Or so they thought.

Members of the Rantoul Park District’s Board of Commissions certainly thought they were holding their final meeting, when they convened at the Rantoul Business Center on November 17th.

The week before, voters in Rantoul had narrowly approved a referendum to dissolve the park district, including its elected board and its power to levy property taxes. The remaining question for the commissioners was when exactly the park district would legally wink out of existence.

Members of the Rantoul Park Board (clockwise around table: Rich Thomas, Jason Bartell, Bd. Pres. Gary Hardin, Terry Shepherd), meeting November 17th at the Rantoul Business Center, the week after Rantoul voters cast ballots on a referendum to dissolve the park district.

Photo Credit: Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media

Park Board President Gary Hardin figured it would be on November 22nd, when Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten planned to certify the election results.

“So we’ve got until Tuesday “, said Hardin at the close of the 11-minute meeting. “If anything pops up, we can get together one last time. With that, is there a motion to adjourn?”

Everything pointed to a low-key ending for the park district, which was formed after the end of World War Two to look after Rantoul’s original park on Wabash Avenue next to the junior high school. Today, the park district owns additional parks in Rantoul, but just one facility led to the movement for dissolution --- the district’s Brookhill Golf Course.

“We’re not anti-golf”, says Jack Anderson, the spokesman for the group that put the park district dissolution referendum on the ballot. “We just want to see our tax dollars we pay for parks to go for parks in our community, not just accommodating two percent of the population that plays golf.”

Anderson (who also serves on the Champaign County Board) and his group, Friends of Rantoul’s Parks, argued that very few Rantoul residents actually use Brookhill Golf Course. But he says the facility has taken up the lion’s share of Park District tax revenues, leading to the neglect of its other parks.

The park district opened Brookhill Golf Course about a mile north of town in the 1970s. In recent years, it’s been losing money – a lot of money, in line with the decline in both Rantoul’s population and golfing’s popularity. Another factor is another golf course in Rantoul, which was only open to military personnel on the old Chanute Air Force Base. But since the Chanute base’s closure in the 1990’s, that course, known as Willow Pond,    has competed with Brookhill for customers.

Anderson’s group wanted the park district to get rid of Brookhill golf course, and when they didn't, the group pushed to get rid of the park district. Anderson says doing so transfers ownership of park district properties to the village of Rantoul.

“And the village will now run those parks within the village”, predicted Anderson before the referendum vote, “but it will have to decide what to about the Brookhill complex, that’s not even within the jurisdiction of the village. And we’ll leave it to their good judgement to decide what is best for the community.”

Anderson, who plays some golf himself, wants the village to close or sell Brookhill, and let the town’s Parks and Recreation Department look after the Rantoul Park District’s other parks.

The fact that Rantoul has both a park district and a village parks and recreation department (established in the 1950’s, initially to run the town’s swimming pool) might seem like an unnecessary duplication of local governments. But the Rantoul park district commissioners see things differently.

Park Board member Rich Thomas was a long-time Parks and Recreation employee before his retirement. He says that over the years, the two agencies have worked together to provide Rantoul with a comprehensive system of parks and recreational programs.

“And that was our goal, as a recreation department and the park district, to provide a park in every neighborhood”, said Thomas in an interview after the November 17th meeting. “And if you check Rantoul, check a map, you’ll see we’ve done a pretty good job of that. So it’s not like we have too many parks. That’s not the case.”

Sign marking the entrance to Wabash Avenue Park in Rantoul. This was the first park facility managed by the Rantoul Park District. The village of Rantoul and the Rantoul school district now own sections of the park.  

Photo Credit: Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media

While Rantoul Park Board members argue that the town’s park services are healthy, they acknowledge that Brookhill Golf Course has become more of financial burden in recent years. There have been cuts in the facility’s operating budget, but even so, the park district’s only employees work primarily on the golf course. Meanwhile, there have been proposals to get the park district out of the golf course business entirely.

One proposal came last year from the owner of the Willow Pond golf course --- a land swap. Under the proposal, Willow Pond’s owner would take over the Brookhill golf course outside of town, and the Rantoul Park District would convert the Willow Pond site in town to other recreational uses.

The proposal was opposed by some of Willow Pond’s neighbors, who wanted the golf course to stay open. But it also led to the discovery ---- perhaps rediscovery is the better word ---- of a big requirement attached to Brookhill Golf Course.

A federal Land and Water Conservation Fund grant that helped the Rantoul Park District buy the land for Brookhill nearly a half-century ago came with a stipulation that the property be maintained for public recreation in perpetuity. Questions surrounding that requirement helped kill the land swap idea.

Before the November election, park district dissolution advocate Jack Anderson argued that the stipulation --- known as a covenant --- would expire once the golf course changed owners. But officials with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which oversees such covenants for park land in the state, say that’s not true, and the covenant remains attached to the Brookhill property, no matter who the owner is. And Rantoul Village Administrator Jeff Feigenschuh says the question that faced Rantoul’s park board, now faces Rantoul’s village board.

“Can we afford to operate this facility long term?” said Feigenschuh. “And if not, what do we do with it? Because again, we now have 160 acres of property, that despite what some people think, it has to remain open and accessible to the public.”

Feigenshuh says the village could convert Brookhill Golf Course into a more low-maintenance kind of park, but it would still have to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on upkeep, without the benefit of the Rantoul Park District’s tax levy.

Or maybe the village won’t have to do anything. A few days after that supposedly final park board meeting, Champaign County Circuit Judge Tom Difanis put dissolution of the park district on hold, pending the outcome of a lawsuit.

Rantoul attorney, Paul Wilson, speaking for two park district supporters --- both golfers ---- says the referendum was invalid because its petitions were filed with the Champaign County Court, when they should have been filed with the Rantoul Park District. And if that wasn’t enough to make the referendum invalid, he says it failed to get enough votes, according to state laws governing park districts.

“It’s our position that that the vote has to carry by a majority, according to the number of registered voters, not necessarily the people who actually voted”, said Wilson, who worked with a Chicago law firm experience in park district cases in filing the suit.

The referendum to dissolve the Rantoul Park District received 2,167 “yes” votes –  52 percent of ballots cast. But it would need 3,588 votes to equal a majority of Rantoul residents on the voting rolls. That same number amounts to 86% of the actual number of ballots cast in the November 8th referendum.

A hearing on the Rantoul Park District case has been set for January 5th. That gives the Rantoul Park Board time to hold at least one more meeting --- and many more, if the lawsuit is successful. If that’s the case, the Rantoul Park District will continue as one of Illinois’ 6,963 units of local government. And once again, Brookhill Golf Course will be the Rantoul Park District’s problem.