NEW PORT RICHEY — City Council member Bill Phillips recalls with fondness the huge community effort that led to the construction of the Sims Park playground more than 20 years ago.
He was one of many who helped build the wooden wonderland, and later as a council member in the early 1990s, he took part in planning the grant-funded master plan that gives the park its charm today.
"I was there with supplies and they told me where to move things. But they didn't trust me with a hammer," Phillips said with a laugh. "The community really came out and embraced that project. There was just a really dynamic community group"
Since then, the 12,000-square-foot play haven with slides, swings, monkey bars and turrets has become a family staple in the heart of the city — but it too has a shelf life. Just over a year ago, a risk-management consultant hired to look at safety conditions in all New Port Richey parks found rusting swing parts and wooden planks splintering from wear and tear.
A consultant with Public Risk Management of Florida found the structure "is well over 20 years old and has given outstanding service to the community. Its boards have weathered over the years and the structure does not lend itself to replacement of such parts because it is built of interweaving and layered construction."
After that report, the city sought and scored a $200,000 federal grant through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which requires a $200,000 match from the city. Last week, the City Council voted unanimously to move forward with the $400,000 park improvement plan — which will mean replacing the current playground with a new state-of-the-art site.
It's still early in the process, so officials haven't drawn up plans yet on where the new playground would go or what it might look like. They will welcome residents' input as the process unfolds.
In addition to a new playground, the plan may also include upgrades to boating facilities and the amphitheater, city finance director Doug Haag said. Upgrades could also include construction of a picnic facility, nature observation platform and multipurpose trail. The city can use grant funds of up to $60,000 for design and engineering services in planning the park.
"This is deja vu all over again," Phillips said during the council meeting Tuesday. "It's a nice first step. A nice way to recharge Sims Park."
Haag said the city has three years to complete the project using the grant funds, but several council members pushed for the project to move forward as soon as possible.
"All of this is well past its due date," said Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe.
Council member Judy Debella Thomas said park upgrades would be a great step for downtown. She added that she would like to see some shady area in the heart of the park worked into the plan as well.
"It's just a beautiful movement forward in our design for the downtown," she said.
Community input has already begun, as resident Greg Carmichael asked the council whether the plans will address the park's dirt parking lot, which he considers a dusty eyesore.
"It sure would be nice to have some pavement there," he said.