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Clearwater's playgrounds are disappearing

CLEARWATER — Astra Dialinakis used to walk her 2-year-old daughter, Fotini, to the Country Hollow Park playground almost every day.

But on a recent morning, they were greeted by a wrecking crew in the midst of taking down the youngster's favorite swing set.

Dialinakis consoled the teary toddler, telling her the city would build a new one.

Not true.

The small playground was coming down for good.

And as more playgrounds in Clearwater age, they will follow.

"I had to lie to her and say we'll get another one," said Dialinakis, 31. "With the little vocabulary she knew, she tried to tell her dad that they took away the swings. It was devastating."

Now the family drives to a playground behind the Countryside branch library. But that, too, is set to close.

Likewise, the aging playground at Overbrook Park on the city's west side and the one at Ed C. Wright Park on the south are targeted for removal.

The news is grim, city leaders say, but money is tight.

Now local parents and their children are wondering whether their swing sets, slides and jungle gyms will be next.

• • •

While creating its parks and recreation master plan in 2002, Clearwater set a high standard: placing playgrounds within a mile of all residents.

The city, credited with bringing in the IronMan 70.3 and honored by Sports Illustrated as Florida's No. 1 "Sportstown," wanted to enhance its reputation as a place that values recreation and emphasizes healthy living.

At the time, the city had the land and the money to pull it off, and the accolades the playgrounds generated validated what leaders spent decades striving for: to build a city known as a wonderful place to play.

Now, though, the city is facing intense budget cuts and officials say the older playgrounds won't be replaced.

Because of falling property values and the impact of Amendment 1, the recreation department is targeting about $2.3-million in cuts this year.

The cuts will eventually spill over to the playground system, which costs $185,000 annually to inspect, repair and replace.

"The challenge with the new budget is how much of the quality of life standards we can maintain with the staffing to support it," City Manager Bill Horne said.

While city leaders believe they can keep up the standard because many playgrounds overlap the 1-mile radius, parents are loath to see any of them disappear. They say the playgrounds bring families closer, create a safe haven for children and increase property values.

"They're building dog parks, but what about the kids who need a place to go, something to do?" asked Nancy Thomas, 45, whose sons use Allen's Creek Park's playground. "They can't keep taking from the kids because some parents don't have cars, and they need something close to home. What are they going to have left?"

• • •

Since devising the standard, the city has added four playgrounds: McKay on the beach, Glen Oaks and Garden Avenue near downtown, and Allen's Creek on the east. The city also took over the Long Center, which includes one of the state's few "limitless playgrounds," dedicated to physically impaired children.

As of today, the city has 28 playgrounds. To replace them all would cost $2.5-million.

Most are small, tucked inside neighborhoods. They have swings, slides, maybe some monkey bars or a plastic component that combines these elements.

The playgrounds touch the entire city, its most affluent parts as well as its poorest. They're free to use and designed to serve more than 110,000 residents, but they're also close enough to attract visitors from Largo, Dunedin and Safety Harbor.

"The playgrounds are the centerpiece of the park system; it's that foundation we're looking to promote, hoping kids get one hour of play per day in a challenging environment," says parks and recreation director Kevin Dunbar, adding that the city doesn't keep statistics on how many people use them. "In their most simplistic sense, they're like little communities for the neighbors."

Dunbar says "we're not looking to take them out," but adds once they reach their average lifespan — about 12 years — they probably have to go because of safety.

The city recently rehabbed playgrounds in the north at Forest Run Park, Del Oro on the east and Pier 60 on the beach. It plans to add another, paid for with donations and grants, at the Ross Norton Recreation Center in June.

But no new ones are on the city's to-build list right now.

Further, the city is cutting its playground "renovation and replacement" budget by 20 percent at a time when equipment costs are increasing by 50 percent.

Some critics say it's about time Clearwater reins in its spending.

"These people are insane — I don't know what planet they're living on," says Countryside resident Will Perry, 71, who sometimes takes his 8-year-old grandson to a nearby playground. "I have three within a mile of me."

One victim of the cutbacks is the playground at Ed C. Wright Park. There, gang signs are etched into the yellow tubular play course, the slides are chipped and the small rotating blocks kids use to solve simple math have holes in them.

Cigarettes litter the ground and the equipment appears rarely used now. It has about 18 months left.

• • •

As parents fret about possible closures, their children remain unaware, enjoying the day.

At Del Oro, near the Ream Wilson Trail, 3-year-old Dylan Martinez recently rocked ecstatically on a toy horse, his hair bouncing in unison with the toy's springs.

Squirrels scampered across a half-acre ground covered with scattered leaves, wood chips and a dozen live oaks.

On the other side of town, students swarmed the playground at Allen's Creek Park, a former environmental cleanup site the city rehabbed a few years ago.

Jade Littrell's long brown curls swayed as she hurled a red Nerf football, watching it wobble through the air toward her friend Alaina Ortiz, who was there to make the catch.

"Throw again, baby," Jade, 6, said reaching for the ball.

Jose Ortiz kept watch over the two. He pointed out that at a time when America is worried about obese children, playgrounds are the best things a city can provide.

"It lets them break a sweat," the 33-year-old said. "A playground is the last thing we should get rid of."

City leaders agree. But a recent e-mail from Dunbar to residents upset about the demise of Country Hollow's playground provides a look into the future.

"I know this is not what the neighborhood wanted to hear, but this is the new reality of reduced revenues," Dunbar wrote. "And as such, there are really no other options to explore."

Mike Donila can be reached at (727) 445-4160 or mdonila@sptimes.com.

>>fast facts

Bay area's playground policies

Clearwater has a standard that places public playgrounds within a mile of every resident. Since some overlap and Clearwater is trimming back its annual spending, the city will weed out older playgrounds that need major repairs. City leaders, though, say they can still keep their standard. Here's a look at some of the bay area's cities and their standards for playgrounds:

Largo

The city has nine playgrounds, but doesn't have a standard to place residents within a certain distance of them.

St. Petersburg

In the process of establishing a standard that places playgrounds within half a mile of every resident. The city, which has partnered with the school system to build playgrounds, currently has 71 and could reach its goal by 2010.

Pinellas Park

The city doesn't have a plan that designates a distance for residents to playgrounds, but officials have built playgrounds accessible enough so residents do not have to cross major highways to get to them.



Clearwater's playgrounds are disappearing 04/28/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2008 4:48pm]
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