On Park District’s 85th anniversary, Kelly makes final pitch to keep his job

SHARE On Park District’s 85th anniversary, Kelly makes final pitch to keep his job
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Michael P. Kelly (left), seen in 2015 with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has headed Chicago’s parks since 2011. | Sun-Times files

With no guarantee he will be retained by Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot and no golden parachute if he’s not, Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly on Wednesday — with an assist from his boss — made a strong pitch to keep his $220,000-a-year job.

Kelly marked the Chicago Park District’s 85th anniversary with a luncheon address to the City Club of Chicago.

He was introduced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who sang the praises of his only park superintendent after joining him earlier to launch the 7th summer season of “Night Out in the Parks.”

Six weeks ago, Emanuel had pressured Kelly to trash a three-year-plus golden parachute contract awarded to the superintendent without the mayor’s approval.

But any hard feelings from the episode that forced Kelly to fly without a net were not evident Wednesday.

“We are within point-zero-five percent of achieving our goal that Mike and I set eight years ago — which is that every child will live within a 10-minute walk of a park or playground in the city of Chicago,” Emanuel said.

“Every child does,” he said. Then he added, to a smattering of laughter: “Some people have to walk really fast for that 10 minutes.”

The mayor ticked off the seven sports centers, 377 rebuilt playgrounds and $1 billion in new programs and capital projects on Kelly’s watch.

“There’s not a single thing I’ve asked him to do that doesn’t get done,” the mayor said.

“He has made an incredible imprint on the quality of life of our city. The city that’s known as the city in a garden has a park district that makes that a reality — not just a colloquial phrase,” Emanuel said, calling Kelly “the person who has made that possible.”

Kelly then took the baton and ran with it.

He called himself an “unabashed park kid” now raising “four park kids” of his own and raved about how much “I love what we do.”

He thanked Emanuel for “taking a chance on me” eight years ago and providing the public and corporate support needed to separate the lakefront trail and add “1,000 acres of parkland.”

Kelly said he and his team “measure our success by the number of kids we bring in the door” — but doing that, he said, is a “daunting” challenge.

“We’re battling the privatization of sports. We all know it. Youth club sports have become a $15 billion industry in this country and it’s pushing youngsters more and more into specializing,” Kelly said.

“One of the hardest-hit is youth baseball. Little League participation has dropped more than 20 percent since the early 2000s. And that loss can be attributed to travel club baseball. To me, it seems like the waning of the days of using sports as an opportunity to teach children about collaboration and leadership and fair play as we increasingly live in a society that simply sees sports as a means to an end.”

Kelly noted that other cities “face the same challenges we do” and some have thrown in the towel and “tossed the keys to their fieldhouses and their community centers to the privates because it’s the only way to keep the lights on.”

“Everyday families that just want to come and use their community center — they can’t get in because it’s completely privately run,” he said.

Chicago is not about to go that route, he said.

“We’re rooted in our core values. … Youth programming is still our No. 1 priority. And we’re proud to be that central hub of activity all year-round,” the superintendent said.

Lightfoot told the Sun-Times last month she is “not wild about” Kelly’s plan to merge the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses.

The merger gained momentum when former President Barack Obama chose Jackson Park for his presidential center. But the $30 million plan hit a fundraising snag, derailing Kelly’s plan to begin construction right away.

“It feels like it’s not a well-thought-out plan. It’s not a plan that’s been respectful of the community. There’s some environmental issues with it. … I’ve got some concerns and some red flags,” she said.

On Wednesday, Kelly made a renewed and impassioned pitch for the golf course merger, designed by a firm owned by golf legend Tiger Woods.

“Tiger Woods won the Masters,” Kelly said as his audience laughed.

“We have had dozens and dozens of community meetings. And if it was up to me, we’d be in the ground right now. I so desperately want to convert the golf course into something more. It’s 5,100 yards. It was the first 18-hole course west of the Alleghenies. But we can do better. We have a ton of dough to raise. But we’re getting there.”

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