Playing It Safe

The new playground in Ritter Park provides area children a modern, safe playground to enjoy.

By Jean Hardiman

One zip line. Five slides. Fourteen climbing options. Two hundred and fifty cubic yards of engineered wood fiber underfoot and scores of children playing, growing and exploring over top.

These are just a handful of the sights you will see if you visit the new playground at Ritter Park, which will celebrate its one-year anniversary this fall, after the old playground was closed for about seven months due to safety concerns. The $300,000 in improvements were pushed to the top of the Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District’s priority list after Executive Director Kevin Brady was made aware of the severity of the old playground’s safety hazards.

The result is a playground that is not only safer, but has a slew of features that allow children to stretch themselves physically and imaginatively. It’s the eighth playground the park district has built in the past six years, with the ninth — an all inclusive playground that will be a national demonstration site — underway at St. Cloud Commons.

Tearing down Ritter Park’s old, “Alice in Wonderland” playground, however, was not a job for the weak.

“I was the guy who closed the old one down and put a fence around it on an 80-degree day in February,” Brady said. “I was the villain of Facebook.”

It was a result of a visit Brady made to the playground one day with a playground expert. The park district had plans to build a new shelter, which it now has, and then replace the old shelter with improved rest-room facilities.

“I was there with the designer, looking to see what we were going to do,” Brady recalled. “He said, ‘Do you know you have Priority One safety hazards here?’”

“A Priority One safety hazard, in National Playground Safety Institute standards, means there is imminent danger that a devastating accident will occur. Not that it could or there is a possibility — that it will occur, including loss of limb, paralysis — they go through a whole list — and even death,” Brady explained.

Practically the whole playground was a Priority One safety hazard.

“When you combine stainless steel, cobblestone and concrete in a playground, there are hazards,” he said, adding that the island playground, even though it was on a rubberized surface, had some safety concerns as well, including not enough free area surrounding the climbing structure. Also, the metal slides reached 112 degrees in the summer.

In all fairness, he said,when the “Alice in Wonderland” playground was built in the 1980s, the National Playground Safety Institute didn’t exist.

“Even today, there is no law that says you have to close playgrounds with hazards, but every day I’m on the job, I have liability concerns,” he said. “I think about what could happen. Kids are going to be kids. They’re going to climb and jump and break their arm at some point. They’re going to fall off some things. But we have to make it as safe as possible.”

So he did what he had to do. The new playground was put on a fast track and built with money from the park district’s rather small $1.2 million total budget.

“This was $300,000. It was a little bit of a struggle,” Brady said. He credited his Human Resources and Finance Director, Kathy McKenna, for helping make it happen. “If it weren’t for her, I would have broken the bank a long time ago,” he said. “Kathy keeps me reined in and even when we’re struggling, she has a plan B and backup money when needed.

“I have a wonderful staff. All things come into play to make our clients happy. My career goal is to improve the quality of life for people and create smiles. I have the greatest job,” he noted.

Brady is especially excited about revving up a project that will bring more smiles to Huntington’s West End. This summer, the park district broke ground on an all-inclusive playground at St. Cloud Commons. The first of its kind in West Virginia, the playground will be fully accessible and designed specifically with children with disabilities in mind, though it will have activities for children of all abilities. “It will feature some of the newest equipment that can be found anywhere,” Brady said proudly.

Some $250,000 of in-kind services have been key to the new project getting started, Brady said, thanking Huntington Steel, Huntington’s Public Works, Dixon Electrical Systems and Contracting, State Electric, C.I. Thornburg Company, Eastham & Associates surveyors and Neighborgall Construction.

“If you think about kids who have never had the opportunity to play on a playground because of their disability, it will be incredible,” Brady said. “The goal is to allow children to see beyond disabilities and give everyone a chance to play. This is a place where there aren’t differences. Everybody can play together and have fun.”

He hopes the first phase, which includes the biggest play apparatus, a “Tree-for-All,” will be completed this fall.

“And then I’d like to be able to roll right into Phase 2, and hopefully the money will keep coming in,” he said in June. “We’re constantly applying for grants and holding fundraisers. We’re currently at $836,588 raised of the $1.4 million goal. So we’re over halfway.”

He’s hoping to raise the remainder of the needed funds within a year so that the playground can be finished quickly.

“I’m excited and anxious for it and I’m proud that we’re as far along as we are,” Brady said. “Any donation helps. We get donations from $20 to $200,000, so we’ll be glad to take anything people can give. I hope we have some play champions who will step up and realize this need.”

“I think it will be a wonderful thing for the West End, for Huntington overall, and for West Virginia as a national demonstration site. People will truly come from all over the country just to see it — to see how they’ll build their next playground.”


 

Jean Hardiman is a freelance writer living in Huntington. She is a university relations specialist at Marshall University.

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