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Community treasure

The long plastic tube stood in the corner of our garage so long that it seemed part of the house — you know, like the water heater.

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Then one day the daughters decided they needed to store their stuff while they moved overseas. We had to make room.

"What is this thing?'' I asked the better half.

"It's a time capsule,'' she said. "We just never got around the burying it.''

One night last week, I wrestled the top off the tube and emptied its contents on the floor. Mainly it was stuff kids had signed, T-shirts from various Pasco elementary schools, copies of the St. Petersburg Times from November 1990, the "before'' snapshots of a rather simple playground in New Port Richey's Sims Park.

The tube didn't offer up any treasure — unless, of course, you count memories.

I've lived in these parts for more than 30 years, and I can assure you there has never been a more positive, family-friendly five days than Nov. 14-18, 1990 at Sims Park. More than 3,500 volunteers swarmed like ants from sunrise to night, hauling and sawing lumber, digging holes for posts, sanding, drilling and hammering in what was best described as an old-fashioned barn-raising.

And when they were done, a 12,000-square-foot wooden playground stood among the giant oaks and palms, replacing rusted swings and monkey bars. Volunteers had given the children of west Pasco a place where their imagination could run wild, towers and mazes and swings and bridges.

On the final day, children squealed with delight as they ran onto the planks. Parents hugged and cried with joy. If you were there, you remember. (Just wish I could remember how the time capsule wound up in my garage.)

Roxann Mayros was there — from the beginning. She had read my columns gushing about these wooden playgrounds in other communities and wondering why we couldn't build something similar. She volunteered the 20 working mothers who made up the West Pasco Junior Woman's Club to ramrod the project. When these persuasive women asked for money or materials, donations flowed like water. It helped that then-Mayor Peter Altman pushed for downtown development and saw the playground as a magnet to attract families. He did more than that — he got his hands dirty.

Mayros, now the chief executive for VisionServe Alliance, a national advocacy organization for the sight impaired, drove by the playground last week. She lives most of the year in St. Louis but returns regularly to be with family.

"Twenty years!'' she exclaimed. "How did that happen?''

She recalled the penny drive that involved every elementary child in West Pasco, and how many of them worked directly with consultants from Robert Leathers Associates to design the playground.

"The week when we actually built the playground was beautiful,'' Mayros recalled. "The whole community got involved, even unlikely partners like weekend jail inmates who worked alongside prosecuting attorneys. Sertoma fed three meals a day to hundreds of people. Total strangers read about the project and dropped off extension cords, rakes, whatever. Kids soaped screws and sanded blocks of wood while their parents worked. It was just amazing.''

Becky Mitchell, who like Mayros had young children and volunteered with the Junior Woman's Club, agreed. "I had goosebumps the whole time,'' she said last week. "To this day, I have never forgotten that week. The whole experience was just so fulfilling and rewarding.''

Twenty years is a long time for a wooden structure in the Florida heat and humidity, and the playground is showing its age in places. The city's parks director, Elaine Smith, said an advisory committee has been reviewing the playground and that she will try to include money in the budget next year to build a new one on the same site.

Like the playground, much of West Pasco is showing wear and tear. Half-finished buildings mar the landscape, a reflection of a brutal economic collapse in an area that once held such promise.

Will it come back? Will downtown New Port Richey ever feel the kind of buzz like those five November days 20 years ago?

A new generation may get the opportunity to make it happen again.

>>On the web

Playground legend

Robert Leathers, the architect from Ithaca, N.Y., dubbed the Johnny Appleseed of these community playgrounds, has turned the company over to his son. You can see some examples of their work at www.leathersassociates.com.

Community treasure 11/20/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 23, 2010 1:02am]
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