When driving around Elmhurst in the summer, one can't help but notice the bright bursts of color from the many flower beds throughout the city. They're in pots in City Centre, at the entrance to virtually every park and in full regalia at the formal gardens at .
Those flowers and a host of other seasonal plants—some 10,000 native plants per year—are grown in the Park District's greenhouses, located near the at Wilder Park. The Park District has its own horticulture department that propagates and transplants the blooms all over town.
But the city's two greenhouses are structurally deteriorated, especially the one to the north, which was built in the late 1800s. The 88-year-old Wilder Park Conservatory directly to the west of the greenhouses, which draws nearly 14,000 visitors a year, also is badly in need of repair. So, in 2010, the Park District applied for a $1.84 million Park and Recreational Construction grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. It was announced last week that Elmhurst will be awarded the grant.
The grant is part of the state's Illinois Jobs Now capital program, which is expected to create more than 300 jobs throughout the state. But to the Elmhurst Park District, receiving the grant and rehabbing the conservatory complex means more than creating jobs.
"It is a multi-faceted program that benefits people at many levels," Park District Executive Director Rich Grodsky said.
In addition to the greenhouses providing many of the city's plants and flowers, the conservatory draws tourists and serves as an educational resource for hundreds of schoolchildren, he said. It contains exotic plants, ferns, blooming cereus and even a banana tree.
The north greenhouse is in such bad shape that it will have to be torn down and rebuilt. The south greenhouse is salvageable, but it will need a new masonry foundation and all new glass and framing.
"The hope was that we would be able to save both greenhouses, but because of the age and deterioration, we are not able to do that with the one on the north," Grodsky said.
The conservatory will get new vestibule doors and frame, new interior walkways that are Americans with Disabilities Act compliant, an automated venting system, updated heating and air conditioning, and upgraded plumbing and electrical systems for energy-efficient climate control.
The footprint of the conservatory complex will not change. The idea is to replicate as closely as possible the original structures, Grodsky said.
"We think it's the right thing to do given the character of the park, the history of and why those greenhouses are here," he said. "So it's more of a continuation of what we've tried to do throughout the park, keeping the historical pieces in place."
While the size of the conservatory won't increase, maneuverability for visitors will improve, said Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation , who will be overseeing the project.
"Now, there are piping systems that are too low and you have to duck under them, the walkways themselves don't provide the most solid type of footing," he said. "It will be a much more enhanced experience when we are able to update things."
PARC grant funding is reimbursed; the park district will have to pay for the project up front, and the $1.84 million will be awarded when the work is complete. The grant funds 75 percent of the $2.45 million project, with the Park District responsible for the rest.
But even with Illinois in dire financial straits, Grodsky said he is not at all worried that the state won't pay up.
"Those dollars are in the Illinois Department of Natural Resources budget, separate from the general fund," he said. "I always worry about the general fund, but I don't worry about the bond stuff. It's money (bonds) that are already sold and banked."
In addition to the work on the greenhouses and conservatory, and as a condition of the grant, the Park District also will have to rebuild its poly-arch greenhouse, a fabric-on-frame structure that will house all the plants while the work is being done. The cost to rebuild the poly-arch is about $400,000, Rogers said, and is not part of the grant.
Rogers gave credit to all of Elmhurst's state legislators who helped pursue the grant: Sens. Carole Pankau and Ron Sandack (and before him, former Sen. Dan Cronin), and Reps. Dennis Reboletti and Chris Nybo.
Over the course of 2012, the Park District will replace the poly-arch greenhouse and begin specific design-engineering work on the structures.
The district has been working with consulting engineer Montgomery Smith Inc. out of Ohio on speculative work and cost estimating.
"We've been working with them since 2003," Rogers said. "We knew we really needed to start taking a hard look at these facilities, so we had a full needs assessment and evaluation done in 2003, and it's been a process ever since."
Montgomery Smith is a highly specialized firm.
"(It) only does historic renovation of conservatories and greenhouses," Grodsky said. "That's their sole purpose."
The district will continue to work with that firm in the near term, but when it comes time to begin the rehab, the project will go through the public bidding process, Rogers said.
"We're hoping that over the course of a two-year period, we can get this done," he said.