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WATCH NOW: Frank Mrvan, YMCA eyes Wicker Park in Highland for next 'regional' hub

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HIGHLAND — YMCA officials say they are eyeing Wicker Park as the site of a new facility — similar in "size and scale" of Crown Point's $34 million, 120,000 square foot premier location that was renovated and unveiled only just last year. 

Jay Buckmaster, CEO of Crossroads YMCA, said in a statement the organization is exploring a project with stakeholders, including officials with the town of Highland and North Township for a "new regional YMCA."

If it comes to fruition, the new facility would be comparable in size to the Southlake YMCA in Crown Point and "complement" other locations in north Lake County, including facilities in Hammond, Whiting and Griffith, YMCA officials said.

North Township Trustee Frank Mrvan is driving the project. 

However, some high-ranking township and city leaders are already questioning the project and the value of yet another crown jewel YMCA facility in Lake County.

Wicker Memorial Park on Ridge Road is about a five-minute drive from Hammond's YMCA location and Highland's Lincoln Community Center. It's also about 10 minutes from Griffith's YMCA.

Highland Town Council member Mark Herak said the YMCA project at Wicker Park could make the town's Lincoln Center nearly obsolete. More than half of the revenue stems from user fees, not property taxes, Herak said. 

"We're very open to working with them, but the fact is this our Lincoln Center is three, four blocks away. If they're offering the same programs, and with a pool, where would you go?" Herak said.

Mayor Thomas McDermott was critical of the project during his most recent Mayor's Night Out event on Wednesday night. 

He said his own city spent millions to renovate the Hammond Family YMCA in the last two years with help from the Dean and Barbara White Foundation. 

“I’m concerned. I love (the Hammond YMCA) building. We just put millions of dollars of renovations into this building, it’s gorgeous. I want thousands of people to come (to Hammond)," McDermott said. "I’m concerned if we build a brand new Y a mile from here that it would have an impact on us.”

Highland Town Council President Mark Schocke said he also has questions about the project's potential impact on the town of Highland's nearby Lincoln Community Center.

'Rich history'

McDermott claimed some of the Wicker Park YMCA project costs would fall to North Township taxpayers. 

However, Mrvan — who recently secured the Democratic nomination over McDermott to succeed Indiana’s longest-serving congressman, Pete Visclosky — said this is a private investment by the Dean and Barbara White Foundation.

"Facts always come out in the end. There is zero investment by the township," Mrvan said. 

Mrvan said this multi-million dollar investment would be financed "at no expense to taxpayers" while protecting the "rich history" of veterans at Wicker Memorial Park.

"As we work to grow our economy, this investment will help meet the increased demand for opportunities for group sports, yoga, karate, daycare, and community services," Mrvan said. 

Wicker Park is now home to a golf course, splash pad, trails, volleyball courts, a playground and a veterans memorial. 

Details of any potential land purchase, donation or lease agreement were not immediately available Thursday. Mrvan said stakeholders are in the early discussion stages and it's too soon to tell how exactly the project may proceed. 

Whose authority? 

North Township Board Chairman Peter Katic and fellow board member Lisa Salinas-Matonovich, who said they are hesitant to vote yes on the project, said they believe Mrvan may proceed with the project without board approval.

Katic said at the July board meeting, he raised the legal question as to whether Mrvan can unilaterally approve this. 

"And he claims, as the executive, he's able to pursue this unilaterally," Katic said. 

Mrvan said while there was a legal question posed to the township attorney about his authority on this project at the July meeting, he "absolutely welcomes" the board's input. 

Katic and Salinas-Matonovich said they are hesitant to back the project. Board member Rick Novak could not be reached for comment. 

"If I had a vote, it would be no," Salinas-Matonovich said. "He may have wanted our opinion but it doesn't matter. He's going to do what he wants to do." 

Katic said Mrvan first told him about the YMCA project after a May 12 North Township board meeting and asked him if he could tour the Crown Point YMCA location with other stakeholders, to which he agreed. 

"He thinks he doesn’t need any board approval. I got the impression he wanted us to have a tour of Crown Point facility, and by virtue of the impressiveness of the facility, be in awe to welcome such a project in Wicker Park," Katic said. 

At the North Township board's July 14 meeting, Katic said he wanted the project to become an agenda item indefinitely and so that project planning is transparent and open to the public. 

A project of this magnitude requires a transparent vetting process that includes the board and public from beginning to end, Katic said. 

Katic also said he has concerns about traffic flow at Ridge Road and U.S. 41, to which YMCA officials committed to addressing any safety or traffic concerns. 

Katic said he worries the natural beauty and recreational open, green space of Wicker Park would "forever be lost" if a new massive Y facility was built in its place. 

The project will be up for discussion at the Township board's Aug. 18 board meeting at 2 p.m. at the Clubhouse, 8554 Indianapolis Blvd. 

Highland approvals 

Many Highland town council members declined comment or did not respond to requests for comment. But it appears any project would have to be approved by the town, and the land would have to be rezoned before anything can be done. 

Schocke said Wicker Park, currently zoned O-1 for open space, would have to be rezoned or a zoning variance must be approved to allow for a facility building. 

When asked to provide details on the project, Schocke said he knows little. 

"I have not seen any drawings, site plans, engineering or traffic studies," he said.

"Frankly, I have some of the same questions that you have posed to me regarding funding, how the land will be used, engineering details, and the impact on the local neighborhoods and community including Lincoln Center. However, I simply don't have enough facts yet. If a zoning application is made with the town, we will likely ask many of these same questions of the petitioners and of our residents before arriving at any decision," Schocke said. 

Mrvan said he wants to work in cooperation with "all stakeholders," including the township board, the Highland Town Council, the town's Zoning Board of Appeals and Planning Commission, and the town's parks department.

Herak said north Lake County may become oversaturated with YMCA centers. 

"There's plenty of programming in Highland, Hammond, Griffith ... will they all suffer?" 

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North Lake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting from UIS. Contact her at lauren.cross@nwi.com or 219-933-3206.

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