For more than half of a three-decades career in public service, Jim Pilmer channeled his energy toward recreation.

And he’s still learning its definition.

“You might be able to find it in the dictionary under ‘R,’ but it should be under ‘you,’” says Pilmer. “That’s because recreation is defined by each and every individual. I might just think of it as kicking a soccer ball or hitting a baseball, but to someone else recreation is about walking on a trail, playing at the playground or taking the grandkids fishing. Ours is an industry where opportunities are endless.”

After eight years calling the shots as executive director at the Fox Valley Park District, Pilmer, 64, is retiring as chief of Illinois’ second-largest park district, overseeing an agency that serves 236,00 residents, 1,100 staff members and the Aurora, North Aurora and Montgomery communities at-large.

Hired as FVPD’s sixth executive director in 2015, Pilmer pledged to remain “visible, accessible, approachable and accountable” throughout his tenure.

“Jim is genuinely interested in people and their stories,” says Kim Nooncaster, Pilmer’s executive assistant. “Every new young person he meets, his first question is ‘Where’d you go to high school?’ and that’s his way of starting a conversation to learn more about someone. He likes to get to that next layer – Where are your roots? What interests or hobbies do you have? – and I’ve always admired that in him.”

Jen Paprocki – a 13-year veteran of the FVPD’s administrative team, including the last three as director of finance – will succeed Pilmer on Jan. 1.

Accomplishments aplenty

The FVPD’s Board of Commissioners honored Pilmer at its December meeting with a lengthy proclamation, recognizing the District’s many accomplishments under his leadership. Notable highlights include:

  • Construction of two new facilities (The Barn at Blackberry Farm and The Wilds at Red Oak), and six new parks (Blackhawk, Weston Avenue, Palace Street, Randall Highlands, Verona Ridge and Falkos)
  • Creation and rollout of the Fox Fitness brand
  • Acquisition of key riverfront property, and expansion of territory served by the District through annexations
  • Construction of 10 outdoor pickleball courts at popular parks – Simmons and Hupp – on Aurora’s east and west sides, respectively
  • Revitalization of the Orchard Valley property, including a current five-year partnership with Troon, LLC – the world’s largest golf course management and hospitality company
  • Significant trail connectivity improvements, including the widening and paving of the Illinois Prairie Path
  • Development of the rolling “Five-Year Financial Forecast” to ensure stability, safeguard District assets, and provide consistent, quality programming, events and services to District residents and visitors

“Jim created strong teams through department heads and gave them autonomy to deliver initiatives within their areas of expertise,” says Chuck Anderson, president of the FVPD’s Board of Commissioners. “He promoted collaboration and welcomed different perspectives. His message was: ‘I trust you to do your job to the best of your ability – and if you need help, I’m here.’”

Under Pilmer, the District procured approximately $14 million in federal, state, and local-level grants to fund programming and initiatives to further reduce the District’s reliance on property tax dollars. In 2022, District homeowners paid just 41 cents per $100 of equalized assessed value to support Park District services, and 2023 will mark the 12th consecutive year the District has maintained a zero-percent tax rate increase for residents – a trend Pilmer vowed to continue the day he was introduced as District chief.

“What Jim leaves behind is a change in the philosophy of the Park District,” Anderson says. “He’s always talked about trying to make the Park District more of a business of creating recreational opportunities, but still a business that has financial accountability with activities and events that are profitable.

“He wasn’t just out there throwing good money around to build new parks and facilities. Jim planned with a purpose and considered each initiative, big or small, an investment in the community.”

Pilmer spent a total of 27 years in public service, including two stints as department head (parks and recreation, and neighborhood standards) for the City of Aurora. Throughout his career, Pilmer has championed inclusion and equality for underserved populations in the community. Under Pilmer’s watch at the Park District, the Golf For Kids Benefit Outing – the signature event of the Fox Valley Park Foundation – raised nearly $540,000 to support programs such as free swim lessons for underprivileged youth, veteran’s luncheons and events, and programs for seniors.

FVPD ‘has never been on more solid ground’

Pilmer credits the Board of Commissioners and FVPD department heads for the “ingenuity and expertise required to produce high-quality recreational experiences,” he says. During the height of the pandemic, Pilmer introduced “Resilience, Reimagining Recreation, Recovery” – an umbrella campaign dedicated to phased reopening strategies in the pandemic’s aftermath, which included an economic relief plan for all employees.

Despite the challenges that in many cases required FVPD staff to “reimagine recreation,” the agency “has never been on more solid ground,” Pilmer says.

The District is recognized as an Illinois Distinguished Accredited Agency by the Illinois Association of Park Districts, and the Illinois Parks and Recreation Association, “which affirms our responsible stewardship of public resources through our financial, operational and legal practices,” Pilmer says.

Additionally, the District has established a balanced fiscal budget; a fiscally responsible tax levy within its pillar of financial discipline; a 2024 capital budget plan funded with millions from past and future grant awards, along with capital reserves built over the last eight years; a debt capacity that is sustainable and responsible; and a board-approved 10-year comprehensive plan.

“Jim’s emphasis on financial strength and being excellent stewards of public funds has moved the District into an exciting position for the future,” says Paprocki, noting that just last week the FVPD reaffirmed its AA+ bond rating with Standard and Poor’s, a rating that was maintained in 2020 during the pandemic’s peak.

“We’ve built what I like to call ‘cultures of evidence’ to support our collective decision-making,” Pilmer says. “With the passion and expertise of staff that’s here, the places the Fox Valley Park District is headed have no bounds.

“The ceilings are unlimited for this agency.”