Municipal elections are happening April 2nd, and there are a variety of local positions up for grabs. We came up with some questions for candidates in several of these races, and will be publishing their answers over the course of the next couple of weeks as they respond. Smile Politely doesn’t generally endorse local candidates, and these interviews are not endorsements. Hopefully, they will provide you readers with some insight into the importance of local races, and help you develop a sense of which candidates share your values. We’ve reached out to those running for Champaign and Urbana school boards and park districts, Champaign City Council, Mayor of Champaign, and Parkland Board of Trustees.

The Urbana Park District Board of Commissioners oversees the operations of the Urbana Parks. It's made up of five members, and members are elected to serve six year terms. This election cycle there are three candidates running for two positions. 

Roger Digges was appointed last year to fulfill an unexpired term, and is running for re-election. 

Smile Politely: As a current board member, what successes can you point to during your tenure on the board? Why should voters elect you for another term?

Roger Digges: First, I would point out that my tenure on the Board is relatively short, less than a year since I was appointed to serve the remainder of Bob Stewart’s term. Second, I would also make the case that any successes I can point to during my tenure have been a team effort in concert with Urbana Park District staff and my colleagues on the Board. Having said that, I think among the District’s successes during my tenure as Commissioner include the application for and receipt of a $400,000 grant to continue the renovation of Crystal Lake Park — to improve its water quality, access to the lakeshore, improvements to the lake house area, and a playground area. I am very excited about the possibilities! We have also been successful in renovating the James Room in the Phillips Recreational Center which includes a remodeled kitchen which allows special classes in cooking. The District has also received grants to research what is needed to expand the Kickapoo Rail Trail into Urbana (this grant was applied for jointly by the City of Urbana, Carle Foundation, the Regional Planning Commission, and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District), and to construct a shared use path along Park Street south of Crystal Lake Park. The Board also supported the purchase of a portable stage which allows the District to hold park fun nights, neighborhood nights, and other special events in a variety of locations with a minimum of staff effort. I think voters should elect me for a full term because as a past member of the Urbana Park District Advisory Committee and as a Board member, I have learned a lot about how the District functions, and what my role is as commissioner. As a daily walker at Meadowbrook and a birdwatcher who regularly enjoys all of our natural areas, especially Crystal Lake Park/Busey Woods, I have a lot invested in our parks. I also support the District’s continuing efforts to break down barriers that would keep any resident from participating fully in UPD parks and programs.

SP: When considering the Urbana Park District budget, what are your top three spending priorities?

Digges: My top priority will always be staff because without staff there are no parks. Staff provide the administration, maintenance, and programming that Urbana residents depend on. Probably my second priority is funding for park maintenance. Maintenance is not exciting, but, having been involved in researching the 52 year history of Meadowbrook Park, while grants and major donations have made an enormous difference in its development, it requires the efforts of staff to maintain its buildings and natural areas. My third priority is funding for programs which reach all our residents, especially children.

SP: Is there a park district facility that you feel is under-utilized? How could you bring more programming and people to that site?

Digges: A difficult question. Right now I feel that Crystal Lake Park is a facility which is under-utilized. CLP has been a major focus of the Park District for some time, and its ability to receive grants will play a major part in renovating the District’s oldest park. Improving the water quality will make it more inviting to people. Creating a walk/run/bike path which surrounds the park will bring more people out to enjoy its tree-lined areas. A new playground will attract families to the lower area of the park. And programming will follow the people.

SP: What do you think the CPD is doing well in terms of making its programming and facilities accessible and inclusive for all residents: racially, socioeconomically, physically. What can be improved upon?

Digges: While I was still serving on UPDAC, the park district’s advisory committee, I heard a presentation on the results of a study the District had commissioned on members of our community who were underrepresented in our parks and park programming. I was impressed that, even before the results were announced, staff were putting plans into action to reach underserved residents and neighborhoods. For some time, the District has worked hard to make its facilities accessible to people of all levels of mobility. By creating “pop-up” programming in neighborhoods, by listening to concerns of cultural and psychological barriers to participation, and by impressing staff with a park culture which says “You are welcome here” to everyone, UPD has made great strides. Are we there yet? Are Urbana parks and programs fully inclusive? No. It is an ongoing task of self-evaluation and proactive steps. But I feel the District has made significant progress.

SP: What is your favorite Urbana park and why?

Digges: That’s easy. Meadowbrook. We walk there probably 300 early mornings a year, whenever we’re in town and there’s (not too much) ice or any thunder, you’ll find us walking our two laps around the park. It’s relatively close and its sidewalk system is excellent. But more than that, the animals who live or migrate through there never fail to surprise us. We’ve seen a mother snapping turtle lay her eggs in mulch in Timpone Grove, watched red-tailed hawks doing their spectacular courtship display over the savanna, heard woodcocks calling as they do their sky dance above the prairie, and always welcome the “o-ka-lee” of the first red-winged blackbirds when they return to the park in the spring. It’s one of the Park District’s three natural areas currently open to the public (Weaver Park and Busey Woods are the others), and bring us a bit of wilderness.