All-access playground, splash pad both “firsts” for Johnson City
Story and photos by Jeff Keeling
Johnson City will see two firsts next spring at Rotary Park – its first all-access “boundless playground” serving all children including those with disabilities, and its first public splash pad.
A $250,000 state Local Parks and Recreation Fund grant put over the top the noon Rotary Club’s four-year effort to establish a boundless playground. Construction of the 36,000-square-foot space near the 10.4-acre-park’s Broadway Street entrance should begin late this fall and be complete in time for the park’s spring 2015 opening.
News of the grant award, which goes to the City of Johnson City, came last week. The application submitted in April was the city’s second attempt for the project, and it left co-chairs Mike Mefford and Shelley Brouillette “elated” that the $750,000 playground can get under way soon and will be fully funded.
“I think we literally jumped up and down when we heard,” Brouillette, the club’s 2013 president, said during a visit to the park Friday. “It gets us to that point where it’s coming to fruition finally.”
First envisioned during Mefford’s 2010 Rotary presidency, the playground will allow full accessibility and enjoyment by all children, including those with disabilities ranging from mild to severe. It will include features specifically designed for accessibility and enrichment for children in assistive devices such as wheelchairs, and also meet needs of visually and hearing-impaired children.
“Rotary also strives to help children,” Mefford said. “While any nice playground would have been good for any child, we thought there are certainly children who don’t have an opportunity to play. That kind of mirrors Rotary’s mottos and how we approach all of our projects.”
The playground – which features a natural theme anchored by a custom-designed tree in its center – will have areas designed specifically for 2- to 5-year-olds and for 5- to 12-year-olds. It will become the Tri-Cities’ second such boundless playground. Darrell’s Dream playground opened at Warrior’s Path State Park in Kingsport in 2007.
According to the grant application, Washington County and surrounding areas have more than 5,000 K-12 students enrolled in some type of special needs classroom due to physical or mental disabilities.
Learning of the project’s success was music to the ears of Allison Maines, whose sons Guthrie, 7, and Vadin, 4, utilize playgrounds throughout the city. Maines anticipates a fabulous playground and is looking forward in particular to the splash pad.
“We’ve been wanting to have a splash pad in the city,” Maines said. “That’s something we definitely will use.”
Vadin has Down syndrome, and Maines said the playground will offer a great opportunity for families with a child affected by disability to not only have a place to call their own, but also to see the integration that occurs when all children can enjoy play together.
“Any time there’s a center where our little community of special needs can get together it’s helpful for us to have a place to go where moms can get together with their kids and we don’t have to worry,” Maines said.
The splash pad is sure to be a hit, but Mefford said had the grant been funded it would have been phased in later. Yet it, too, is designed to be used by all.
“Kids that have disabilities and are in assistive devices can’t just hop in the pool like most kids,” Mefford said. “This gives them an opportunity on a hot summer day to come out and get wet like any other kid.”
The playground will stretch 240 feet across, parallel to Broadway and just in front of the Harris Pavilion at the park’s entrance. It will be 150 feet deep, going toward the road, with the parking area moved closer to the Broadway during renovations.
Much work will be provided in-kind by Johnson City, the Washington County Highway Department (which will pave the new parking area), and private groups and businesses. The city’s public works department will act as the project’s general contractor.
The grant and additional cash raised since 2010 will fund the equipment, which costs about $450,000.
Mefford said the natural theme will fit well within the densely wooded Rotary Park, which includes a deed restriction preventing the removal of any trees. He and Brouillette are even thinking about the next potential move to enhance the 10.4-acre park.
As the Maines brothers pointed excitedly at the playground features shown on a sign at the park’s entrance, Brouillette and Mefford said the playground’s completion could spur additional improvements to the park. Those include possible application for arboretum status, expansion to a now-empty, city-owned house adjacent to the park for use as a learning center, and staying open year-round (the park closes for winter).
“Rotary Park has high usage right now, but we want it to be even more appealing for uses beyond picnicking,” Mefford said. For more information, visit jcrotary.com/rotary_park_boundless_playground.