Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- As part of the Park Forest Public Library’s Potpourri of Lectures series, Mayor Joseph Woods presented The State of Park Forest on Thursday, November 9.
Woods was elected mayor in April of this year. He was on the Village Board as a village trustee since 2019. Before that, he was a library trustee and the village’s Poet Laureate.
His speech focused on what he views as the five “weak points” and the five “strong points” of life in Park Forest. Woods said he views his job as mayor to build on the strong points and improve on the weak points.
State of Park Forest: The Weak Points
As he began exploring the state of Park Forest, the mayor began with the weak points. Woods said that property taxes were number one on his list. He said that Park Forest residents are burdened with some of the highest taxes in the state. This is due to how Illinois funds its schools and the Cook County tax assessment method. He called for changing those systems and recounted the village’s efforts in Springfield and within the Assessor’s Office.
Woods moved on to his second item: the need for more business development in the village. This he views closely interrelated with the first issue. Because of the current tax system, it is increasingly difficult to attract new business. Despite this obstacle, Woods said the village needs “to be aggressive in seeking out the kinds of businesses our town can support, and then encourage our residents to patronize those businesses.”
Third on Woods’ list of weak points was crime. “Today some people are afraid to walk their neighborhoods even in the daylight.” He believes that much of the crime in Park Forest is related to youth-related incidents. Toward that, the mayor vowed to work toward developing more youth programs. He also mentioned his intention to start a parents’ advisory council to help the village board deal with the issue.
Communications issues were number four on his list. Woods lamented the loss of community newspapers that kept residents informed about village activity, including board meeting news. He noted that residents frequently hear only news about police or fire activity and automobile accidents. “The lack of communication with the public has caused a decrease in community awareness. Our goal is to find new and effective ways to communicate with our residents.”
School interaction was the final item on his list of weaknesses. He said the closing of Rich East was a significant blow to the village. However, he pointed to potential improvements in the communication process. This would be a step in the right direction by re-establishing regular dialogue. This back-and-forth used to exist between the village and the various school boards.
State of Park Forest: The Strong Points
Park Forest’s rich arts culture was number one on the mayor’s list of village strong points. “No community in the south suburbs has the rich cultural heritage found in Park Forest.”
Freedom Hall, Tall Grass Art Association, Theater 47, Main Street Nights, and the annual Art Fair were among the venues and events he noted. As mayor, he aims to increase resident participation in these events and use them to attract others to the village and “show them what we have to offer.”
Many years ago, the village board established the goal to make Park Forest one of the most sustainable communities in Illinois. Woods believes that goal has been achieved, and he placed environmental success as number two on his strengths list. “A clean environment is the backbone of a healthy community.”
The newly renovated Somonauk Park helped make “Parks & Recreation” number three on Woods’ list. Additionally, he referenced:
- the Aqua Center,
- the tennis facility,
- the park pavilions,
- and the Central Park baseball fields.
The mayor said all of these make Park Forest a leader in this area.
He noted that he was incredibly proud to be the second person to use a kayak at the new Somonauk Park.
Fourth on his list of strengths was community involvement, and he cited many of the special programs offered, such as the residents’ picnic, ice cream socials, and new resident gatherings. Woods is hopeful that he will soon be able to bring back neighborhood meetings with village leadership to understand the needs and concerns of residents better. He thanked all of the residents who currently give their time to serve on village boards and commissions.
Outreach to Younger Residents
Speaking to the gathering of mostly older citizens, Woods said that he hopes to get younger residents more engaged in community activities and build upon what has already been created by older generations.
Finally, Woods views Park Forest’s long heritage as a significant strength. Woods said one of the best parts of his new job is getting to know more residents and learning the fascinating roles many of them had in making the village what it is today. He aims to ensure new residents learn the impressive history of Park Forest.
Other Comments and Questions
After his prepared remarks, Woods took questions from the audience.
Many of the questions dealt with taxes and the new assessments that residents recently received, including how the co-ops were, or were not, receiving preferential tax treatment. Woods reiterated that the village is working to address the issue and promised that the town has been transparent in its financial dealings and will continue to be.
He noted that there will be a workshop at Freedom Hall at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, November 29, dealing with the issue of assessments and property taxes and invited those interested to attend. Attorney Mario Reed will conduct the “Flat Property Tax Initiative” session. Also, on December 4, the Village Board meeting will focus on the budget and financial outlook of Park Forest.
Towns Join to Lobby Springfield and Washington
Woods commented that the village is working closer with its neighboring communities of Richton Park, Matteson, and Olympia Fields on lobbying efforts in Springfield and Washington. “When we go down to Springfield or Washington DC, we are able to bring a lot of funds back largely because we are able to say that we are part of a greater municipality with 70,000 residents, rather than just 22,000 Park Forest residents.”
In closing, Woods pointed to several significant accomplishments in Park Forest over the past several years, including the demolition of blighted properties in the Eastgate area of the village, the numerous new businesses in Downtown Park Forest, the multiple road projects completed, the re-establishment of the Civic Leadership Academy, and the creation of the police and fire advisory council.