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Neighborhood hopes to salvage park

Frederick Copeland has the keys back in hand. And this time, he and his neighbors hope they unlock more at Copeland Park than the restrooms.

"There are many people concerned with what is happening," Copeland said.

"We'd all like to see a better neighborhood."

Copeland and a handful of other Knights Addition residents are working with city staff to rejuvenate Copeland Park, which opened in 1983 after urging from Copeland.

Once celebrated as a community gathering place for the predominantly black neighborhood, the local park has become a reputed hangout for drug dealers, underage drinkers and kids with time on their hands.

The city plans to install new lights and repair old ones to deter crime. A fence that surrounds a pond at the park is being repaired and strengthened. Police already have increased patrols in the area.

Then Tuesday morning, during a meeting that brought together residents, city staff and police officers, came a gesture that was more symbolic than significant:

City Public Works Director Russ Kreager gave Copeland keys to the park's restrooms.

Normally, the restrooms are locked during the evenings and on weekends to limit vandalism. Yet evenings and weekends, Copeland has argued, are peak times for any city park.

A few years ago, Copeland himself was not only the namesake of Frederick W. Copeland Neighborhood Park, but the gatekeeper. He unlocked the restrooms whenever they were needed by park patrons.

But excessive vandalism led city staff members to begin opening the restrooms on weekday mornings and closing them on weekday afternoons, before children even returned from school.

Copeland no longer had a key.

Now, city staff has decided that Copeland and another resident, Herb Hampton, will share the responsibility of locking the restroom whenever patrol officers assigned to that duty cannot do so.

Staff members plan to keep the restrooms unlocked later at Copeland Park than at other city parks. The restrooms will be painted and, once the new lights are installed, the new hours will begin.

The late hours came at the suggestion of Copeland, who said park patrons might respect the facilities more after the city improves them.

Tuesday morning, city staff members and residents made key decisions together: what time the lights should be turned on and off, where they should be located and whether the restrooms should be locked on the weekends.

"I want your help. I need your help, and it's not just me," City Manager Roger Baltz said.

"The City Council has been very, very clear that they want us to address these concerns."

Yet the concerns go beyond the park. Residents worry about drug deals on their streets, about young people in their neighborhood making the wrong decisions. In the past year, their fledgling crime watch program has made little progress.

"We try to be as proactive as we can," police Chief Ray Kaminskas said. "But we need the community to help us out."