CHICAGO—A safe haven for thousands of kids on the West Side is out of commission for the summer. The Garfield Park Gymnasium has not yet been repaired after a flood almost a year ago.
Critics are questioning the Chicago Park District's priorities, following a series of stories by FOX Chicago News and the Better Government Association, where we found questionable contracts, curious hires and excessive spending on out-of-town trips, hotels and meals.
Marlon Sykes said for his teammates at Marshall High School, and thousands of others on Chicago’s West Side, the Garfield Park Fieldhouse and Gymnasium is like a second home.
"That gym was most important because that was the foundation where I started my high school career, in the summer league at Garfield Park," Sykes said. "So that park is huge with me and my teammates, getting off the streets and getting into the gym."
But that gym is now off limits, and has been since heavy rainfall last summer triggered a flood that destroyed the gym's wooden floor.
Chicago Park District supervisor Brian Biggane showed us how water from the Garfield Park lagoon and the park's own swimming pool poured into the gym, which is actually below ground.
"Then once water covers this floor, you're done after a couple days," Biggane said.
It's the fifth time it's happened since the gym opened in the mid 1980's.
"To put a new wood floor in, yeah, that'd be great," Biggane said. "But there's no guarantee it's not going to flood again."
So the Park District is planning to put a new rubberized floor in the Garfield Park gym. But it won't be ready till fall.
This means the gym will remain unusable through the heat of summer, in a neighborhood police say has the second highest homicide rate in the city.
"If it's closed it's going to be hard. Kids are going to be on the streets," Sykes explained.
Cook County Clerk David Orr has been a key supporter of Garfield Park recreation.
"I'm tired of excuses," Orr said.
He said the Park District should have begun fixing the gym right after the flood last summer, instead of spending thousands of dollars on hotel rooms and fancy meals.
"The bottom line is they've not made this the kind of priority they should," Orr said. "And if the kids come first, this would have been handled."
"We keep kids off the street seven days a week over there," Marshall High School basketball coach Henry Cotton said.
He was surprised at how long the Park District has taken to repair the gym floor, due to the value the gym has in the community.
"It's not a delay," Jessica Maxey-Faulkner of the Chicago Park District said. "It's due diligence. Our engineers had to do everything they could to make sure the problem is being solved."
Maxey-Faulkner said fixing the floor is a priority, and pointed out the district has spent close to $2 million on various upgrades at Garfield Park over the past year.
The district will try to run some of the summer programs out of nearby parks. But because of the gang problems on the West Side, some of the students we talked to said it's not always safe to travel to another neighborhood.
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