Getting to Know Tim Bartlett: Urbana Park District Executive Director & UPF Trustee

Feb 2018

I have never written a “blog entry” in my life until now! When the Urbana Parks Foundation Marketing Committee asked me for help, I couldn’t wait to talk about one of our UPF Campaign “Pillars”-Crystal Lake Park. To be sure that I don’t forget to include ALL of our UPF “Campaign Pillars” let me do that right now….The Urbana Parks Foundation is focused on 4 key opportunities:

  • Establish four (4) “Founding Corporate Partnerships”;
  • Create an “all Urbana parks” Endowment Fund for the future support of open space in Urbana;
  • Help our area youth with financial support to participate in UPD programs from the UPF “Youth Scholarship Fund”;
  • Rehabilitate the amazing, beautiful and historic Crystal Lake Park.

My wife and I got married on June 14, 1986 and moved to Champaign a week later. My wife started her new job at “Carle Clinic”-as it was known back then-amidst a flurry of new job stresses, starting on the “night shift”, meeting new people and trying to put our first home together. It was a busy time for her.

For me-I was contemplating starting at the University of Illinois in the Department of Landscape Architecture as a new transfer student from Illinois State University. I was a “late starter” as my Grandpa kept reminding me-as the anxiety continued to build in me over that hot summer. I had started at ISU at the age of 24 and spent 2 years in Normal, IL in the Horticulture program. I decided that I would be “so much happier” as a landscape architect so I applied to the program at U of I. I figured out that if I got lucky and was selected for admission-it was a sign that I had found my mission in life. I finally received word that I was to be admitted and I would start school in the fall of 1986. By then, I was 26 years old and I figured that I really needed to “lean into” my new career and new surroundings. I spent most of my days looking for jobs for the summer. I knew I would be very busy in the fall but, I needed to make some money in a hurry.

I started to ask people I met in the neighborhood: “What can you do around here-any great parks to hang out in”? Someone said, “Head over to Crystal Lake Park-you will love it”. So that’s what I did. I found the park to be an amazing place. Here was this very large park (90 acres) with a huge urban woodland-called Busey Woods (59 acres) right in the heart of Urbana. I spent the rest of my free time that summer at Crystal Lake Park. The old pool was a great place to cool off during that record hot summer. The beautiful lake, the Lake House and the large oak trees really left a strong impression with me. I wanted to know more about the park design so I spent time on campus at the library (we had no internet, Google or other quick ways of getting information back in the olden days) learning about the history of Urbana. I found that you couldn’t begin to think about Urbana’s history without knowing about Crystal Lake Park.

The first park plan was generated by Joseph Cullerton Blair. He was often referred to as “JC Blair” in the annals of early Urbana history. The Urbana Park District was one of the first group of park districts to be established in Illinois (1907). JC was very familiar with the work of Frederick Law Olmstead and Jens Jensen-both landscape architects that influenced early park design in America. JC Blair was also credited with being one of the longest serving park district commissioners, establishing the first state park in Illinois (Ft. Massac) and by being the first president/creator of the Illinois Association of Park Districts. He also is credited with planting over 6000 trees in Urbana-including Illini Grove located at the corner of Lincoln and Pennsylvania Avenues.

Today Crystal Lake Park is still the heart of Urbana. The park is located very close to downtown and serves as our “urban park”. So many famous people and events have helped shape the history of this “uniquely Urbana” park. Like all older parks in America-many are in need of restoration. It is typical for these types of parks to experience large volumes of visitors and events thus, requiring periodic renovations. Our creative park staff have put together a very ambitious and exciting plan to renovate the park to make sure it will serve Urbana for the next hundred years. Many updates have been added to date that include: Crystal Lake Park Family Aquatic Center, the expanded Anita Purves Nature Center and adjacent Friendship Grove NaturePlay, the boardwalk and overlooks of Busey Woods, the relocation of the Planning and Operations facility (moved to Chief Shemauger Park) and many tree plantings.

The UPD has more plans included in the park’s master plan to: restore the lake, improve the lake water quality and planted edges, add new trails and update the Lake House decks and landscaping. Recently, local engineers have been hired to analyze the park road to test the notion of putting in a “one-way” road and trail system. The future couldn’t be brighter for our most historic park.

The UPF is helping the park district to raise both awareness and funds for renovations. Our combined goal is to completely renovate the park so that it will be able to serve the needs of Urbana residents for the next 100 years! Please contact any of our park staff, board, advisory committee (UPDAC) and/or Urbana Parks Foundation trustees for more information. Stay tuned to learn more about the next upcoming improvements to be made in the park.