Frank Hibbard was a brand-new mayor in 2005 when he pledged to build a "healthier Clearwater." That is why it's all the more surprising that one of his lasting legacies is the demolition of at least one of every four city playgrounds. For a city that claims to value its family-friendly livability and a mayor interested in the health of its citizens, the lack of effort to ensure safe outdoor places for children is baffling and disappointing.
As the St. Petersburg Times' Drew Harwell reported in the Clearwater & North Pinellas Times, Clearwater has demolished nine playgrounds since 2006. The city claims the structures had outlived their recommended lifespan. Hibbard said there was no money to repair them — even though at least three of the playgrounds were demolished before the real estate market crash forced budget cuts across local governments.
In fact, there seems to have been little or no public discussion about the playground elimination scheme. The appetite for destruction became clearer last month after a resident complained to the Clearwater City Council about the latest demolition at Plaza Park.
City parks and recreation director Kevin Dunbar told the council the city's 34 playgrounds in 2005 exceeded the city's stated goal of having one playground within 1 mile of every resident. He said the city only needs 20 such locations, which is the goal for 2019. That's when the last of five remaining playgrounds deemed redundant will need repairs but instead will be demolished. Apparently, the plan isn't even well known in the parks department. E-mails show a staff member researched the cost of repairing the Plaza Park playground — $3,600 in the short term — only to be told, never mind, the playground would be torn down.
Eliminating playgrounds might make sense on paper, but it is a real loss for affected neighborhoods — particularly in an economy where families' recreation funds are fast diminishing. Most disappointing, however, is why Hibbard, the self-proclaimed fitness mayor, wasn't interested in saving these community resources that are relatively low-cost ways to promote exercise and combat childhood obesity. Business, community or civic groups could have paid for the repairs if the city couldn't find the money. This is short-term thinking to save a few dollars with long-term consequences to the quality of life and better health in Clearwater.