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Nominee: Bonnie Noble

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Local Not for Profit: Peoria PlayHouse Children's Museum

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A natural fit

Bonnie Noble’s vision for Peoria Parks and Recreation brings stability with top programming, staff

When she was in school in River Forest, a Chicago suburb, Bonnie Noble found that the field trips she enjoyed most were simple nature walks.

“I loved learning different things about different trees and other parts of nature in our parks there. I guess since then, all I ever really wanted to do was be part of a parks and recreation organization.

“I guess you could say I am very lucky. Not many people get to go to work in a park every day. I wouldn’t change a thing,” said Noble, now in her 20th year as executive director of the Peoria Park District.

While not a native, Noble has lived in Peoria since 1968 when she and her husband Kent came so he could accept a position with a local law firm. “I’m definitely a Peorian now,” she said.

She herself was armed with a degree in parks and recreation management from the University of Illinois and had hopes of working for the Peoria Park District. She’d written a paper about it while in college and with her degree and the fact she worked for the Forest Park Park District from the time she was a teen-ager and during breaks in college, it seemed natural.

It didn’t happen, for several reasons. So she took a position as a caseworker for the Illinois Department of Public Aid and was a partner in the local Athlete’s Foot retail franchise.

Then in 1973, Noble was elected to the Park Board. “I ran because of my interest in parks and recreation, no question about it. I wanted to do what I could to keep my hand in it and that was the best way, at the time,” said Noble, who served as Park Board president during the 1980s.

Then in 1992, when she was the director of the Heartland Water Resources Council and still a member of the Park Board, the Park District’s executive director position came open. She applied.

“It wasn’t handed to me. The district still went through a national search process, and I wanted it to. They offered me the job and I gladly accepted. I was one of the lucky ones who got to turn an avocation into my vocation. It’s a great job to be able to help people enjoy what this area has to offer, to help them get more out of their lives. The hands-on part of the job, when I really get the chance to reach people and interact with them, is the best part of it all,” she said.

When she took the position the district had an annual operating budget of $15 million; today it is $44 million and the increase has been accomplished without any taxes increases, Noble said. In 1992, she added, 60 percent to 70 percent of the district’s funding came from property taxes and the rest of the budget was met through gifts, fees, charges for programming and reinvesting.

“We have reversed that and that is something I’m very proud of it. Of course, it could not have happened without some great partnerships with different organizations and companies, like Caterpillar, OSF, the city and county. The partnerships work, plus we have a very generous community in Peoria,” she said.

“People see me coming,” she added, laughing and noting her persistence also has helped the district achieve $55 million in grants since she’s been in charge.

Noble admits she struggled with the decision to apply for the executive director’s position because there weren’t many women in that field at the time. “I was anxious about it. I knew if I got the job I would have to do it better than anybody else because I was a woman and because of my time on the Park Board, which would just put that much more of a microscope on me. Things were tough at the time, too; the district had some problems. But I went for it and I have no regrets,” she said.

She is proud that the Park District now is financially stable. She also is proud that it has grown in what it offers the public in programs and facilities, including the vast improvements to the Peoria Zoo through the years. But she is quick to credit her staff.

“I have a very open management style and my staff knows they can come to me with their ideas and how we can work together to make them happen. And we work very well together as a team here. I believe you try to lure people to work for you who are smarter than you. I have,” she said, again laughing.

“When your people are really good, you just let them go and do their jobs. They’ll ask for help if they need it,” she said.

Noble said she also is proud that her staff cares so much for the organization and the community. When the last recession hit, she witnessed great examples of that, she said.

“When the economy went sour our people came to the table, managers and unions, and agreed to such things as freezing their wages so we could avoid layoffs or closing facilities or ending programs. Our people really care and I see it every day,” she said.

Noble said there have been many accomplishments in the last 20 years of which she is proud, “but it’s hard to pinpoint just a few because all have different reasons for making me proud.”

Pressed to name some anyway, she mentioned the campaign to improve the zoo, including creation of the Africa! exhibit, and the work that still continues there. That includes the new zoo entrance now under construction.

Another she mentioned is the Rock Island Trail, something she has been working on since 1974. “That’s probably the project I’ve been most persistent about. Certainly it’s the one I’ve worked longest on. I think some people would have given up long before this, but I believed in it that much,” she said.

A project she is working on now is the plans brought by the Junior League of Peoria for the Power of Play, the children’s museum and playhouse. The park district is helping to pull the project together. “We believe we can pull this whole thing together. All the dominos have to fall just right, but they will,” she said.

Tentative plans are for the children’s museum/playhouse to locate in the Glen Oak Park Pavilion, where Park District offices now are located. Those offices would relocate to what is now Lakeview Museum after the new Riverfront Museum is completed.

Noble said she believes one of her strengths is the ability to bring people together to work on projects for a common cause. “I really have tried to stay more under the radar because sometimes I can get more accomplished not being out in the forefront. I certainly have no problem giving people credit when they deserve it and I have found that when people really believe in a project and you let them take it, they will work as hard as they can on it.”

In the packet of nominations for The Peorian of the Year Award is a letter from Tim Cassidy, who has been president of the Park Board for as long as Noble has been the district’s executive director.

“It would be too extensive to recite the myriad of facilities, activities, classes, programs and special events that have been developed or grown since Bonnie became the Park District Executive Director in 1992,” Cassidy wrote. He did detail several of them, facilities and programs that “exist today and will benefit future generations due in large part to the leadership and vision of Bonnie Noble.”

Cassidy cited the riverfront facilities, including Festival Park and CEFCU Stage, the Golf Learning Center, the Riverplex, Franciscan Recreation Complex, development of several neighborhood parks and establishment of the Heart of Illinois Special Recreation Association that partners with park districts in Morton, Washington and Chillicothe to provide services to people of all ages with special needs.

He mentioned also the three Gold Medal Awards the Peoria Park District has received from the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration, in 1994, 2001 and 2010.

Saying he believed Peoria parks and the community would be far different if Noble hadn’t come here to live and raise her family, Cassidy said “without question the first rate quality of life we and future generations enjoy is due in large part to the visionary and leadership skills of Bonnie Noble.”

Noble said she and her husband will retire here. They raised three daughters here and now have five grandsons. “I think Peoria is a great place to live,” she said.

And she plans to keep at the job. “Every day is exciting. I can still honestly say I enjoy coming to work every day. I work with great people who are out there doing their jobs and doing them better than I ever imagined. Why would I ever want to do anything else?”

Peoria PlayHouse Children's Museum

Bonnie Noble believes in the Power of Play.

That’s why she has chosen the campaign to build a children’s museum and playhouse at Glen Oak Park to receive the $10,000 award from The Peorian is she if selected winner of the inaugural The Peorian of the Year Award.

The idea for the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum came from the Junior League of Peoria, which then joined forces with the Peoria Zoo to raise funds to create “a day-long destination for learning through play — one that equips local kids with the tools they need to succeed before they enter the doors of our schools,” said a Power of Play news release.

It further said that studies show a community the size of Peoria needs a children’s museum because “85 percent of brain development occurs by age 3, and kids learn more between ages 4-5 than ages 6-18 combined. The Peoria PlayHouse is designed for children ages 0-8, featuring six themed exhibit areas that offer hands-on learning for boys and girls of all abilities. Galleries created by world-renowned designers and education experts meet Illinois Early Learning Standards, and special programs and traveling exhibits encourage repeat visits.”

The project will include a new “grand entrance” to the Peoria Zoo that will also serve to connect the zoo and the museum, which is slated for the Glen Oak Park Pavilion.

“The synergy of the zoo, the museum, the (Tricentennial) playground, the lagoon — all of those are building blocks we can use to keep this park a real anchor for the community,” said Noble, executive director of the Peoria Park District.

The Junior League of Peoria was responsible for the Tricentennial Playground at Glen Oak Park, which was built in 1991. The organization said the Playhouse Children’s Museum is its largest project to date.