A proposed $3-million donation from Winnetka property owner Justin Ishbia could be headed for troubled waters after a review of a draft agreement was met with a wave of criticism from several members of the Winnetka Park Board.
Commissioners reviewed the first publicly presented donation agreement from the Ishbia Family Foundation on Thursday, Nov. 30, during a four-hour special meeting of the Park Board. The preliminary document outlined a lengthy list of terms that the foundation would like attached to its seven-figure offering — but commissioners took issue with several of the proposed provisions.
As previously reported by The Record, Ishbia announced his contribution offer in early September as means to help fund the Winnetka Park District’s renovation of Elder and Centennial beaches.
In the months since the offer, representatives from the foundation and the park district have met to “exchange drafts and debate issues,” Park Board attorney Adam Simon said at the Nov. 30 meeting. Simon described discussions between the parties as a “zealous conversation.”
“It is here tonight because we are at a point in our conversations with the Ishbia Family Foundation where we need more feedback and direction and that’s the preface to the presentation of the agreement (tonight),” Simon told commissioners.
Park Board Vice President Eric Lussen, who served as chair of the meeting with board President Christina Codo present via phone, said that the donation agreement presented Nov. 30 “is the byproduct of a number of conversations.”
Previous iterations of the agreement were not made available to the public at the meeting or via the posted agenda materials.
According to Lussen, a notable previously included condition was a request from the Ishbia Family Foundation for naming rights, Lussen said, adding that representatives from the foundation removed that request.
Before the board’s section-by-section review and discussion of the agreement, Codo outlined what she hoped would be the result of deliberations.
“We are here to really debate and find a path forward that we would find acceptable on our side tonight,” she said. “That’s what I’d really like to hear from you guys.”
‘That’s a problem. It’s a real big problem’
Representatives from both the foundation and the park district have previously stated that funds from the donation would be earmarked for an ADA boardwalk, fenced dog beach and shoreline protection measures at Centennial as part of the district’s first two phases of beachfront improvements.
But if discussions from the Nov. 30 meeting are any indication, the agreement likely faces a challenging path toward fruition as commissioners expressed a host of concerns.
Two main contentions that commissioners discussed at length during the meeting were proposed provisions from the foundation that related to the duration of time the improvements — including a rock breakwater at Centennial Beach, adjacent to Ishbias’ property — will remain in place as well as the role of an arbiter.
The proposed agreement called for the “Centennial Structures” to remain in place for “100 years after being constructed.” It also notes that “a Restrictive Covenant … will be recorded against the land to ensure that the Centennial Structures remain in their as-built locations for the Restricted Period (100 years).”
“A hundred years is way beyond anything that we’ve come close to and I can’t support it,” Commissioner James Hemmings said, citing the precedent of other donation agreements with the park district.
“We have no idea what is going to happen in 100 years,” Hemmings later added. “To me, that’s a problem; it’s a real big problem.”
Commissioners appeared to find some level of common ground when proposing the suggestion of changing the language from a set duration period to a “reasonable life” provision; however, nearly all members of the board agreed that the document would need to defined a significantly shorter term.
Board members also highlighted several concerns related to the agreement’s proposal of an arbiter, whose identity and responsibilities are shared in the agreement.
The agreement names Gregg Seiler, of Seiler Consulting, as the arbiter. Several commissioners called into question Seiler’s previous involvement with Ishbia and his consulting role when plans for the family’s lakefront home were first introduced in 2020.
“An arbiter is supposed to be someone who is neutral and independent; this is not a neutral and independent individual,” Commissioner Colleen Root said.
Root later called the inclusion of an arbiter “absolutely ridiculous.”
“This is a donation agreement,” she said. “Write a check if you want to donate, but don’t be constantly looking over the park district and saying you’ll do this and this and this. … The agreement was, (he’s) going to come and give (us) some money. Fine, then do that.”
At one point in the meeting, Root said she was insulted after reading the donation agreement.
“This document suggests that the Centennial Park is for sale and that someone can come in and offer a very small amount of money to control Centennial Beach from now and until a century.”
In addition to the provisions related to term length and the arbiter, commissioners also expressed concerns regarding the “no strings attached” language that representatives of the foundation have previously used to describe the donation. They also shared hesitations about the proposed payment schedule, potential contingent liabilities and more.
The intent of the board’s discussion Thursday night was not to precede a final decision on the agreement, and no vote related to it was taken.
Similar to previous comments from Codo, Lussen said he hoped the night would offer the chance for Simon to “gather (the board’s) thoughts and recommendations and suggestions, which have all been great, and take them back to the foundation.”
“l think we can have a conversation with representatives of (the Ishbia Family Foundation) and we can say, ‘here’s what our board said.’ And they might say, ‘thanks so much, we’re done.’ And that’s OK,” Lussen said.
“But again, when someone offers an entity that you love, like I do the park district, ($3 million), we say great. But they can also say well there are some conditions associated with it. If we can’t stomach that, it’s OK, but we’re not going to get that donation and that’s fine. But we’re going to have to go back and have that conversation with counsel just to explain things and I’m hoping that this process of going through section-by-section, we will have the rationale and reasons why.”
Park district officials are now slated to meet with representatives from the Ishbia Family Foundation to discuss the board’s feedback and determine if there is a path forward for the agreement to be finalized.
Public Comment: ‘Completely one-sided’
Eleven residents spoke during the first public comment portion of the meeting. Several of the same speakers also addressed the board during the second public comment portion of the meeting after board discussion. All who spoke at the meeting shared their disapproval of the proposed agreement.
Winnetka resident Ted Wynnychenko called the agreement “completely one-sided” and said that it will put the park district and future generations of Winnetkans and everyone at an incredible disadvantage.”
“This agreement, it seems like, the only person who wrote this agreement was the other party,” he said. “There is nothing in this agreement that is of any value to the park district at all.”
Resident Linda Welch said she was “so upset” after reading the agreement. ‘
“It’s really important, I feel, that the park district serves the people of Winnetka,” she said. You’ve spent so much time and money on one person. There’s thousands of people in this community.”
Welch also expressed frustration regarding the status of the long-contentious land swap agreement between Ishbia and the park district. As reported by The Record, the once proposed exchange is considered “dormant” but is still a legal agreement on file.
“We don’t have any idea what’s going on with the land swap, which drives me crazy,” she said. “I really don’t believe we should have ever entered into it. It’s dormant, it’s expired; does it even exist? All of this, everything we’re talking about, is dependent on the land swap and I don’t really believe it’s going to happen.”
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Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.