History of Gurnee Park District

Early settlers arrived in the area now known as Gurnee in 1835, following the Treaty of Prairie Du Chien with Native Americans, which provided for the settlement of northern Illinois. The settlers came to Illinois from the east to acquire inexpensive land and build homes. An article in an early Chicago Tribune states “An obscure hamlet, Wentworth remained such even after 1870 when the name of its post office was changed to O’Plaine.” This was shortened from Aux Plaines, the early spelling of the Des Plaines River. In 1873, the first train went through on the newly-built Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad. In 1874, the town was renamed Gurnee Station. It was later shortened to Gurnee. The name Gurnee was said to have come from Louis J. Gurnee who did the surveying for the railroad; however, other sources indicate Walter S. Gurnee, one of the first settlers in the Chicago area and one-time Mayor of Chicago, was the person whose name was given to the town.

On May 8, 1928, Gurnee became incorporated as a Village. In 1930, the population of Gurnee was 503. Early interest in parks and recreation originated with the Village when a recreation tax was passed in 1941 and a Recreation Board was appointed.

In August 1953, the Village purchased the local gravel pit which became GoweGowe 1980s Park, from Mrs. Cora McCullough. A sandy beach was added and the Village Recreation Board conducted a swimming program. The park was named for Verne Gowe, a coach and teacher at Warren High School, who organized many community recreation programs. This was one of the first parks in Gurnee. In 1956, the Lions Club and American Legion built a bathhouse at the beach.

On July 1, 1968, the Village entered into an agreement with the Special Education District of Lake County (SEDOL) and Gurnee Grade School District #56 to purchase the property now called Viking Park, from the Independent Order of Vikings Valhalla Association.

In 1968, a committee was appointed by the Village to consider the feasibility of creating a Park District. Members of this committee were Verne Gowe, Frank Potter, John Schellenger and Bob Jacobs. On September 7, 1968, voters approved the referendum establishing Gurnee Park District.

In 1971, the Park District purchased approximately 29 acres of the Viking Park property from theVillage with the assistance of Federal Land and Water Conservation Funds. Viking Park was developed in 1973 and 1974. Shortly thereafter, the dance hall that was originally built by the Independent Order of Vikings was restored; a new restroom and concession building was built, a lighted ballfield was constructed, the parking lot was expanded and a new playground was built in 1984 and 1985. The Lions Club funded construction of the band shell in 1980, and it was dedicated to Arthur D. Welton, Sr.

Fishing Trip 2 1990The 1990’s saw the expansion of parks as the population of Gurnee soared and there was an influx of new residential, commercial and industrial development. Developer donations funded the construction of new parks, thanks to the Park District Open Space Policy enforced by the Village of Gurnee. State OSLAD grants also assisted with funding of some park sites. Parks were developed at Providence Village (Kings), Westgate and Russell Road (O’Plaine Park) in 1991. Southridge Park was built in 1992. Pembrook Park (Betty Russell Park) began in 1991 and was completed over the course of several years with grant and volunteer assistance of the Friends of GPD. Developer donation fees totaling $4.5 million were collected in the 1990s and early 2000s during the development boom.

Save Our Parks 19911991 presented a major controversy for the Park District. In March 1991, the Park Board approved an ordinance authorizing issuance of $16 million alternate revenue sources bonds to finance the District’s five year master plan that, over the course of time were to fund the development of neighborhood parks. The Board later rescinded the ordinance in response to petitions filed by taxpayers. However, 524 voters petitioned the Board to hold a referendum to dissolve Gurnee Park District. Friends of Gurnee Park District organized to support the Park District and assisted in a campaign to retain the District. The vote on the question, “Shall the Park District known as Gurnee Park District be dissolved?” took place November 6, 1991. The vote was yes-1,142, no-2,132. The Friends of the Park District continues to exist as an advocacy group and to provide volunteer support of district activities.

The Property Tax Extension Limitation Act became effective on October 1, 1991, limiting the tax extension for the collar counties of Chicago, and thereby, restricting the ability to issue non-referendum bonds for capital projects.

Ravinia Park was developed in 1996, followed by University and Shaw Parks in 1997. In 1998, Hunt Club Neighborhood Park, Vineyard Park in the Elysian Fields subdivision and Timberwoods Park in the Timberwoods subdivision were constructed. In 2000, Providence Park was completed in the Providence Oaks neighborhood. Concord Oaks Park was turned over to the Park District by the homeowners in 2001. Between the years of 1990 and 2000, the population of Gurnee Park District expanded from 16,701 to 31,834, a 110% increase.

Though developer donations were used to build new parks, the District was in Gymnastics 1980sneed of indoor and outdoor programming space for residents. The District sought partnerships and leases with the school districts and Warren Township. This included gymnasiums for indoor athletics, fields for outdoor sports and camps, classrooms for preschool, dance and before and after school CARE, and the use of the high school indoor pool and SEDOL’s Laremont pool for swim lessons.

The Park Board anticipated developer donation revenue coming to an end and in 1997 developed a Fund Balance Policy to accumulate 25% of operating expenses in fund balance reserves. Three months of expenses in reserves improved the District’s cash flow and overall financial stability. However, the need for capital improvements remained unmet, especially the need to replace playgrounds as they aged. In 2004, the District created a Capital Replacement/Development fund to transfer amounts in excess of the fund balance goal into this fund annually to meet future capital needs.

Karate ClassThis prudent planning has allowed the development of new facilities to serve the public. The Viking Park Community Center on Old Grand Avenue in our flagship park, was expanded in 2001. A $400,000 State of Illinois Dept. of Commerce & Community Affairs grant assisted with this project. The community center houses administration, finance and marketing offices, a dance studio, meeting room and three preschool rooms.

In 2000, after years of discussion and two previous failed referenda, “Citizens for a Community Pool”, a grassroots group of over 100 volunteers led by Karen Thorstenson and Wendy Vieth, spearheaded the passage of an advisory referendum placed on the ballot by the Village of Gurnee. The question was, “Shall the Village of Gurnee, using existing revenue sources, enter into an intergovernmental agreement with Gurnee Park District to fund an outdoor family aquatic center at a cost to the Village not to exceed $400,000 annually for a maximum of 20 years?” The vote was 7,213 (61%) yes to 4,590 (39%) no. The Village and Park District entered an intergovernmental agreement on 1/1/2001 to fund the construction of the aquatic center; the Village providing 75% of the funds to service the debt on $6 million and the Park District paying the remainder. In April, the Park District issued $6 million in general obligation bonds (alternate revenue source) to be paid back over 19 years.

The Hunt Club Park Aquatic Center opened on June 8, 2002 at 900 N. Hunt Club Road. Amenities include a 1,500 bather load, zero-depth entry pool, bathhouse, seven waterslides, spray ground, sand volleyball, sand play area, activity pool and tot area, café and grill and a grassy picnic area with shade sails.

In 2003, the Illinois Legislature overrode the Governor’s veto and enacted a law that corrected an inequity in the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law (PTELL) that affected 16 park districts including Gurnee. This change increased the District’s annual bonding ability from $397,000 to $859,000 starting with 2004. The District committed this increase over 20 years in order to construct the 41,000 square foot Hunt Club Park Community Center at 920 N. Hunt Club Road. This community center includes a full gymnasium, preschool, dance studio, meeting rooms, offices, family activity/CARE room, a rock climbing wall and fitness center with 1/12th mile track. The building is adjacent to the Aquatic Center. The facility opened on September 30, 2006, just as leases were expiring at Warren Town Hall and Gurnee Grade School, facilities being used to meet indoor programming needs. In addition to accommodating established programs, the District was able to increase programming by another 20% with the new community center.

In 2005, the Park District acquired approximately 25 acres of woods in the Churchill Hunt neighborhood and 125 additional acres of wetlands in the Village Park area, all of which will be preserved as natural areas for future generations. The 3.6-acre Churchill Hunt Park was completed in 2007 with assistance of an OSLAD grant and dedicated in honor of State Senator Adeline Geo-Karis. The Village Park playground was finally completed in August 2011. This park site had a long, difficult road to completion with the original 10 acres having been donated in the late 1970’s by the developer of Continental Village on the west side of Delany Road in the City of Waukegan.

Tire Swing 1981The Park District currently has 24 playgrounds, six outdoor tennis courts, 23 outdoor basketball courts, 21 soccer fields, 16 baseball or softball fields, six outdoor volleyball courts, three small skate parks, 14 picnic shelters, one fishing area, a sled hill, four outdoor ice rinks, a band shell, dance hall and summer kitchen. Gowe Park was sold to the Warren Township High School District in November 2008, and the beach was closed.

Throughout the growth and development of Gurnee Park District, the board and staff have fostered open communication with residents through community surveys, citizen advisory committees, volunteer work days, public hearings, feasibility studies and strategic plan advisory committees. Evaluations are conducted at the end of each major recreation program. A robust and comprehensive park district website made communication between the community and its park district even stronger. While website program registration began in December 2000, real time online registration became available in 2006.

Beginning in 1995, the Park District utilized a three-year strategic planning process to identify its challenges and opportunities. The plans provide guidance and focus to keep the Park District moving forward on a progressive path. Each strategic plan is formulated through broad-based community input, staff research and planning and community review and refinement. Each of the major initiatives that are identified in a strategic plan include a timeline and staff responsibilities for annual goals.

In 2010, the Park District made application for the National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management. It is a comprehensive award offered by the National Recreation and Parks Association that looks at the challenges and resources of an agency and how it is meeting those challenges. It is as coveted as the “Oscar” is to the movie industry. Finalists compete through a series of application, master planning and visual documentation to vie for the award. Only five are awarded each year, based on population categories. Gurnee was selected as the Gold Medal winner in class IV (pop. 25,000-50,000) on October 27 at the NRPA Congress in Minneapolis. The video created for the application is available to view: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ixlZHW5S5es

Also in 2010, the District received Distinguished Accreditation status from the Illinois Association of Park Districts and the Illinois Park and Recreation Association. In this rigorous process, the staff reviewed and documented every aspect of the agency over the course of a year. The District is accredited through 2022.

The current Gurnee Park District strategic plan was adopted in February 2012 with a new mission of “promoting fun and preserving nature.” The vision statement (with a nod to its national Gold Medal status) is “As a nationwide leader in our field, be the premier provider of community driven and innovative park and recreation experiences, while maintaining financial stability.”

Two parcels were acquired at O’Plaine Park in 2012 and 2013, adding 3.33 acres fronting on O’Plaine Road. The purchases gave visibility into the park site for the first time since the original land was acquired in 1977 and developed in 1991.

A 2012 intergovernmental agreement between the Lake County Stormwater Management Commission, Gurnee School District 56 and Gurnee Park District closed a chapter for District 56 and the Gurnee Grade School building on Kilbourne Road. The school was subjected to major flooding from the Des Plaines River over the course of decades because it sat on a FEMA-designated floodway. LCSWM received a grant from the Illinois Dept. of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to purchase and demolish the school. The school building was demolished in September 2013 and land restoration completed in the fall of 2014. The land will be deed restricted to remain open space in perpetuity. It will be maintained by the Park District as open space. Gurnee School District 56 and Gurnee Park District each contributed to the restoration expense. The site plan includes an open shelter, a commemorative display, parking and rain garden, a connection to the Des Plaines River Trail and two soccer/lacrosse fields. The shelter was completed in September 2015, and the park is known as “Viking West.” This project received an Illinois Association of Park Districts “Best of the Best” Award for Intergovernmental Cooperation in September 2013.

The Park District’s most recent acquisition is the former Gold’s Gym building at 1655 Nations Drive in Gurnee. The 8-acre site with a 75,000 sq. ft. fitness center, including an indoor pool and gymnasium, was going into foreclosure in the fall of 2012 when the opportunity was presented to the Board. A feasibility study and appraisal were conducted indicating that the Park District could successfully acquire and operate the facility through membership and program fees. Bonds totaling $10.5 million were sold to purchase, renovate and equip the facility. The real estate closing took place on October 15, 2013 at which time the center was shut down for three weeks of renovation. It re-opened on November 6, 2013 as FitNation.

In August 2014, the pool area was closed in order to repair and renovate the pool, hot tubs, steam rooms and locker areas to be more accommodating for family use and the learn to swim program. The pool re-opened on December 6 during FitNation’s one year anniversary celebration.

In August 2015, the District began renovation of the former tenant spaces on the south side of the building. This area centralizes all martial arts programming and added a staff conference room, storage and public bathrooms. It was completed in December 2015. There are over 6,400 members that enjoy the use of FitNation on Nations Drive and Hunt Club Road. 

In 2016, the District received Distinguished Accreditation status from the Illinois Association of Park Districts and the Illinois Park and Recreation Association. In this rigorous process, the staff reviewed and documented every aspect of the agency over the course of a year. The District is accredited through 2022.

 Board of Park Commissioners

* Ruth Ann Bratzke 1968-1971
* Roger Wittenburg 1968-1970
* James P. McGill 1968-1973
* William E. Potter 1968
* Gerald Richardson 1968-1975
Jack Anderson 1970-1973
J. Richard Mota 1968-1974
John R. Shaw, Sr. 1971-1997
Gerald Keefe 1973-1976
Thomas Smolich 1973-1976
Christine Thompson 1974-1995
William Bouma 1975
Joseph A. Trierwiler 1976-1991
Joan O’Connor 1976-1979
William VanHulzen 1976-1981
James Strang 1979-1985
Roslyn Faulhaber 1981
Arthur Welton, Jr. 1981-1995
Michael J. Kolar 1985-1989
Jack Porter 1989-1991
Julie Werst 1991-1995
Gerald Jutila 1991-1993
Victoria Paddock 1993-present
Steven Kaplan 1995-1998
Donna Kolar 1995-2010
Michael Hampson 1995-2001
Susanne Kolb 1997-2002
Jack Lepper 1998-1999
Russ Johnson 1999-2011
Wendy Vieth 2001-2003
Libby Baker 2003-2019
Charlie Williams 2002-2009
Jim Goshorn 2009-present
Michelle Klemz 2010-2023
Gerald Crews 2011-present
Saundra Campbell 2019-2020
Aaron Dalzot 2020-present
Chrissie Popper 2023 - present
* five original Park Commissioners

Executive Directors

James Strang 1971-1973
Marilyn Stroud 1974-1977
Betty Russell 1977-1996
Charles Balling 1996-2006
Susie Kuruvilla 2006-present