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The Decatur Park Singers entertain crowds at First Congregational Church in June.

DECATUR — Decatur Park District officials announced the end of the district’s long-running Decatur Park Singers programs Friday, citing declining audiences and rising expenses.

The Decatur Park Singers, founded in 1971, and the Young Park Singers have performed throughout the state and even overseas. The park district’s website lists trips to Japan and Europe among the program’s accomplishments, as well as a performance for President Ronald Reagan.

But times changed. Audiences in Decatur dwindled. The park singers were sought by fewer out-of-town venues, often for financial reasons. It costs more to travel. Grants and sponsorships are harder to come by.

While officials characterized the decision as emotional, they said the district’s shrinking revenues would be better spent on arts programs that could reach more people. For audiences, they planned to expand the Sounds of Summer concert series, which began last summer and incorporated bands from different genres.

“It’s a very sad day,” said Marie Jagger-Taylor, cultural arts manager for the district. “... (The decision) certainly is a very difficult one to make because of the number of people that have been involved, are involved, that grew up with the program, and the lives that this program has touched.

“But I think we feel that we can provide more programming with the amount of money that we spent.”

Park district staff members made the decision, though park board members were aware of it, officials said.

A former park singer and vocal proponent of the arts, board President Chris Riley said it hurt to see the end of the group. He vowed that the district’s commitment to arts would continue.

“It was a great 42 years. More than audiences, what I always loved is the kids who were members of the park singers and how we impacted their lives,” Riley said. “I’ll miss having that opportunity. But, hopefully, we can find ways to get teens involved with some new programs, and we can give them opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

The park singers are a big-budget item. Last year, the district spent about $125,000 on the program, with revenues of about $60,000. Financial information provided by the park district shows a deficit of more than $40,000 in nine of the past 10 years, even as expenses were reduced. In five of them, the shortfall topped $80,000.

The budget gaps come at a time when the park district can ill afford them. Officials have grappled in recent years with the rising costs of maintenance and materials, declining property values that create less tax revenue and a changing, aging population.

“The passion, I think, to keep the arts alive is strong,” Jagger-Taylor said. “It’s just being ... a responsible body of government that uses taxpayers’ dollars. Are we using their money to the best interest of the community?”

Park district Executive Director Bill Clevenger said the decision was not entirely driven by finances.

“It’s, how do we better serve the market today and the interest today? Interests and the entertainment business change over the years,” he said.

District staff members plan to reach out to teens to find out what types of programming interest them.

But there is one role the new offerings aren’t likely to fill. As the park singers traveled through the state, they acted as “ambassadors for Decatur.” Officials on Friday indicated that, rather than send performers from Decatur into other communities, they hope to plan events that could bring those people into the city.

“It’s a different direction in trying to impact more people locally, as well as local residents that want to be audiences to live performance,” Riley said.

Sue Powell, gallery director for the Decatur Area Arts Council, said she saw a lot of exciting possibilities for bringing different types of performers to town.

“Other communities hear when there’s cool stuff going on. I think that having great arts programming here within the Decatur area is more important than making an impression to others outside of our community,” she said.

Powell is the district’s former cultural arts supervisor and was a park singer herself for two years, so the memories of the program are strong for her.

Still, she said, audiences are smaller than they used to be.

“I look to the past and say, ‘Wow, wasn’t that cool, wasn’t that great,’ but I definitely see the value in moving on and being able to, once again, come up with something really fantastic to serve the whole community,” she said.

Despite the hopeful emphasis, park district officials acknowledged that people may be upset by the decision.

“I think it’s going to feel a bit like a loss,” said Becky Newton, director of recreation and facilities. “I’m hoping that everyone can look to the future and talk about what we can really do for the arts in the summer out in the parks. It was certainly not an easy decision for anyone.”

Jagger-Taylor said she wanted to thank the park singers’ many supporters and sponsors over the years, as well as those who participated in the program. She asked for their support during the transition.

“It’s the end of a wonderful era, but the beginning of exciting new dreams,” she said.

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Regional Editor

Regional editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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