People swim laps at Welles Park's indoor pool in June 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

AUSTIN — Staff shortages, youth programs and upgrading park facilities are some of the top priorities in the Park District’s 2023 budget.

The Park District plans to spend $545.9 million next year on the parks, staff, programs and services, a nearly 7 percent increase over the previous year’s budget. That will allow the agency to better manage issues such as the staff shortages that hindered certain programs and offerings this year, and it will ensure park facilities and programs can meet the growing needs of Chicago’s families, parks Supt. Rosa Escareño said this week.

“We must make bold moves to strengthen Chicago’s historic park system and to ensure it’s sustainability into the future,” Escareño said. “The Chicago Park District has started a new, brighter chapter … while underscoring the value of open, green spaces for families to play, exercise, relax and learn.”

On the heels of the Great Resignation spurred on by the coronavirus pandemic, the Park District has struggled with hiring staff members needed to operate park facilities and run vital youth programs.

The issue came to a head over the summer when the district couldn’t hire or retain enough lifeguards to open all of its 49 outdoor and 28 indoor pools. Despite the shortage, the district managed to keep 37 public pools and most beaches open, Escareño said.

The pool sits empty at Douglass Park in North Lawndale before Chicago Park District outdoor pools open, as seen on June 3, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

The Park District will get ahead of nationwide workforce shortages next year by introducing a benefits package to attract and retain staff, Escareño said. A $178 million investment into salaries and benefits will create the district’s first eight-week parental leave program, enable flexible and hybrid work schedules for employees and launch a leadership and customer service workforce development program focused on equity, inclusion and community engagement, Escareño said.

“Parks are places where many Chicagoans, particularly our young people, find their first jobs,” Escareño said. “Our goal is competing for talent and attracting individuals to run our programs. We are very confident for 2023 programs.”

Despite recent challenges, staff levels are at more than 80 percent for fall programs, Escareño said.

Another $70 million in capital projects in the budget will bring free wifi to 60 parks citywide “to strengthen the connection in the South and West sides, and specifically where wifi is lacking in those areas,” the superintendent said.

The district will also invest in 50 new pickleball courts next year, five new nature playgrounds and a slew of new natural restoration areas at Athletic Field Park, Warren Park, Big Marsh Park and Gompers Park, among other spots.

Next year’s budget increases program spending to $131 million, which will allow the Park District to create and staff a dedicated Teen Unit that will strengthen and coordinate opportunities for young people, Escareño said.

That division will be led by a director who will bring all teen programs under one umbrella and streamline offerings to meet the needs of families, especially those on the South and West sides, Escareño said.

The Teen Unit will “help us enhance our offerings and be more thoughtful about the way we approach our young people and build our future leaders,” Escareño said.

The new structure will give a boost to Initiatives such as the Culture in My Neighborhood program, Escareño said.

The $40 million partnership with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events is aimed at transforming cultural centers at parks into hubs for art and creativity. The initiative will upgrade theater, music, dance and visual art capabilities at the cultural centers, Escareño said.

The Garfield Park dome and lagoon in Garfield Park on Nov. 22, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

The dedicated staff will evaluate all teen programs, then identify those in highest demand, particularly in historically underserved communities. The district already identified gymnastics as a priority program and has committed to adding three gymnastics instructors to expand programs in Englewood, Grand Boulevard and Woodlawn, Escareño said.

Violence prevention efforts will benefit from the restructuring by ensuring the parks can be a respite for the most vulnerable young people and a place they can find activities, services, jobs and leadership development opportunities, Escareño said.

“It’s important for us and for violence reduction to continue to create safe havens for kids and for us to look at our teen programs in universal way,” Escareño said.