BLOOMINGDALE – The Marklund Life Skills Academy in Bloomingdale is planning to expand its location on South Prairie Avenue to serve 50 more children and teens with autism.
But the nonprofit, which provides services for adults and children with profound disabilities, has not yet received approval of its plans from the village. Some neighbors have expressed concerns about what the expansion could mean for area traffic.
Adults and children from 23 school districts regularly attend or are housed at Marklund’s Bloomingdale location, said Marklund CEO and President Gilbert Fonger.
One of two facilities, the South Prairie site includes a children’s home, the Marklund Day School and the Life Skills Academy.
Established in 2010, the academy serves about seven children along the autism spectrum, Fonger said.
With funding from a $3.5 million grant from the Ann Haskins Foundation, Marklund plans to build a $4.1 million, 12,000-square-foot addition, which would accommodate 50 more students and include as many parking spaces.
The addition, to be named the Ann Haskins Center, would include seven classrooms, a large multi-purpose room and therapy space. The new building would be designed as a “laboratory school,” Fonger said, allowing teachers and others to observe classes in session.
The grant was part of a bequest split between Marklund and Wheaton College, Fonger said. With the funds provided, Wheaton plans to establish a training program at the college for teachers working with children with developmental disabilities, who would have the opportunity to come to Marklund for practical training in a partnership between the college and the nonprofit, according to Fonger.
There is an acute need for more services targeted to children along the autism spectrum, he said.
“The incidence of autism is only increasing,” he said. “One out of every 88 children born are born along the autism spectrum.”
Aside from serving several dozen more students, Fonger said the addition would bring 40 full-time jobs to the Bloomingdale area.
If the expansion is approved by the Bloomingdale Village Board, Fonger said construction would likely begin in April, with a completion date at the end of 2014.
But several residents in attendance at a Planning Commission meeting Nov. 19 expressed deep concerns about the proposed expansion.
“I think it’s going to destroy this block,” said South Prairie resident Lynn Larsen. “I’m concerned about the safety of kids, dogs, cats and the animals that cross the street.”
Robert Hettlinger, another resident of South Prairie, said traffic from school buses, diesel engine fumes, speeding and littering by Marklund employees have caused problems in the residential neighborhood.
“Now they are talking about the expansion and they are probably going to double all of that – twice the number of workers, buses, garbage and diesel fumes,” he said.
Both Hettlinger and Larsen believe the facility was misplaced from the beginning, and both plan to attend a second Planning Commission meeting on the proposed expansion scheduled for Dec. 17.
“The Planning Commission will decide whether Marklund has met the burden of saying they’ve complied with the criteria for the special use permits they need,” said Bloomingdale Planning and Development Coordinator Jan Hernon.
Once the commission makes a recommendation it will go to the village board, which will have the ultimate say in the matter, she said.
“Is it gonna add traffic? Yes,” said Fonger.
But a traffic study commissioned by the nonprofit organization indicates the traffic won’t adversely affect the surrounding neighborhood, he said.
The study has been submitted to the Planning Commission for consideration, in addition to more information that “answered all the concerns” brought up at the first meeting, he said.
Despite the controversy, Fonger is hopeful the project will move forward as planned.
“We couldn’t be more excited about being able to do this and the resources it will bring to the community,” he said.