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Akst: Sycamore referendum plan is on

The Sycamore Park District just voted to add a referendum to the November ballot. If it passes, residents would pay about $81 more a year in property taxes, the Daily Chronicle reports.

The money would help fund the commission’s $13 million “Vision 20/20 Plan.” Key aspects include a community center, sled hill, dog park, splash pad, better hike/bike trails, sports complex improvements, and replacing the golf course irrigation. Officials are also pursuing grant and private money.

Commissioner Bill Kroeger makes the case for expenditure in a promotional video.

“We estimate that the seven improvements we’ve outlined would cost the average household in Sycamore about $7.61 a month or $91.28 [sic] per year,” he said. “That’s 25 cents a day, less than a pack of gum, less than a can of pop.”

I support most of the referendum, but predict it will fail.

Most, but not all: I really want Sycamore to fix the current pool or build a new one. Not a splash pad, but a pool, where people can actually swim.

I think the park district is manipulating people to abandon the pool. Board members are doing so with data and with the promotional video.

First the data. In 2011 and 2013, the district hired the same Kansas firm to conduct community surveys.

In the 2011 survey, 451 households responded, which means the results had a precision within 4.6 percent. Of the top four important parks and recreation facilities, respondents ranked an outdoor swimming pool higher than an 18-hole golf course (22 percent to 20 percent). In two other, similar survey questions, respondents favored the pool slightly over the golf course.

On question 20 – “Level of Support for Actions that the Sycamore Park District Could Take to Improve the Parks and Recreation System” – 39 percent rated “Build new Sycamore Pool” as “very important,” compared with 18 percent for “Improve Sycamore Golf Course.”

More than twice as many people in this survey favored a new pool over an improved golf course.

Fast forward to 2013, when 785 households responded to the survey for a precision of 3.5 percent. Watch how 2013’s question 8 compares with 2011’s question 20. Question 8 – “Respondents Support for Major Improvements Sycamore Park District Could Take” – shows that 48 percent of respondents support “Development of outdoor water splash pad.”

In fact, the 2013 survey only mentions building a new outdoor pool as either/or options pitted against other respondent preferences.

That is, respondents were asked to decide whether building a new outdoor pool is more important than a new community center or improving trails or the sports field. One or the other.

That feels like the data is being manipulated to produce the desired outcome.

But the video is what really chaps me. It’s visually misleading, and that’s putting it mildly.

Watch for yourself. In four scenes (0:58 to 0:59, 2:15 to 2:20, 5:37 to 5:45, and 10:13 to 10:18), Sycamore Pool is depicted as completely empty and forlorn. Nobody is at the pool at all.

I’ve been to Sycamore Pool dozens of times, and I have never seen it that way. When I go there, lots of people of all ages are enjoying themselves at a nice facility.

Vice President Michelle Schulz seems to explain the emptiness (5:31 to 5:46) because “our park district pool is 31 years old, and unfortunately, it sits in a flood plain that precludes expansion. We pledge to keep it functioning as long as it’s economically feasible, but aquatic recreation is still in short supply.”

By contrast, the video (5:28 to 5:34, 5:46 to 5:54, and 10:20 to 10:25) gushes about a splash pad with images of kids having a blast.

Mind you, the splash pad in the video hasn’t been built, but Sycamore Pool is real and the park district intentionally used the worst possible imagery to reinforce the plan to let the pool die. By contrast, the golf course is in the same flood plain and floods often, but the park district is pumping loads of money into it.

“Only you can put a value on a sunny day spent splashing with your children or grandchildren at the splash pad,” Ted Strack, board president, said near the end of the video.

The value of spending a day with my kid at the splash pad is $0. We like to swim. Neither of us cares about a splash pad. For swimming, I guess we’ll go to Hopkins Pool in DeKalb or to Otter Cove Aquatic Park. Otter Cove is part of the St. Charles Park District.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter @jasonakst.

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