Inver Grove Heights explores option of barrier free playground


file photo Inver Grove Heights has begun to explore the option of creating a barrier-free playground in Heritage Park. A similarly inclusive, barrier-free playground was recently built by the Madison Claire Foundation in Woodbury.

It could be a busy time for the Inver Grove Heights Parks and Recreation Commission as it explores the idea of a barrier-free playground. 

A Nov. 15 open house was held to gauge interest in such a playground, which goes beyond the minimum accessibility requirements for parks as laid out by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Eric Carlson, parks and recreation director, said at the meeting that all 14 of the city's parks meet the minimum requirements.

He said he thinks the current parks do a good job of fulfilling the city's mission of providing "services and facilities that enhance the quality of life in our vibrant community," though that doesn’t mean things can't be made better.

A barrier-free, or inclusive playground tries to do that better job of making sure there are events and activities for everybody, no matter their abilities, Carlson said, while also tempering expectations of what the city might be able to do.

"Just because we're having the conversation doesn't mean we're going to actually do it," he said. "I don't want to have any false hope for those interested in it."

The Parks Commission included language on the subject in the city's updated 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which will be approved by the city council in the near future, saying the city should consider an inclusive/barrier-free playground somewhere in the city.

 

A community asset 

Niki Barker, a member of the commission, said in an interview after the meeting the commission was made aware of the possibility of such a playground at its last monthly meeting in October.

Barker said she's partial to the idea because it'd be nicer for her as a disabled mom, adding she didn't know such playgrounds existed until she had her son.

While the city's existing parks are ADA complaint, Barker said for a "strong adult in a manual chair" such as herself, they have proven to be a challenge for her, and she imagines others may find them equally difficult.

"I hate the idea of limiting where my kids can play with their mom," said Barker. "The heart-warming thing I have seen at these parks is not only disabled kids, adults, parents, and grandparents using it, it's entire communities playing together."

"If it's done right, it can be a hub for everyone to gather and feel safe and enjoy the outdoors," she said.

 

A possible location

Carlson said the playground conversation is happening now because of planning for Heritage Village Park. 

Work has been going on since 2004 to transform the former contaminated railroad site into a city park. There have been three separate master plans over the years. 

The second phase of the park, slated to take place in 2019, includes a playground of some kind, Carlson said. 

The city has received multiple grants to fund work at Heritage Village Park. Carlson said there is approximately $1.7 million left of an original $4.4 million for the phase two improvements. The state grant funding expires in December 2019.

Right now, plans and specifications are being put together.

"In a very short time frame, if we're going to do a barrier-free/inclusive playground, we will have to get our act together, if you will, and design it," Carlson said, adding that with the funding sunset, the project needs to be ready to be bid by March at the latest.

The question turns to whether residents want a barrier-free/inclusive playground, and what process would be used to bring this kind of park to the city. 

Right now, $200,000 is budgeted for playground equipment at Heritage Village Park. However, for a 13,000-square-foot inclusive playground, at an estimated $37 per square foot, $500,000 would be needed, Carlson said.

"We can build bigger than that, but that just means we need more money," he said, "and I don't think you raise that kind of money on bake sales and cookies and things like that."

 

Community involvement

With the grant money having been awarded for Heritage Village Park, Carlson said from the city's perspective, the money has to be spent there.

"It's a community park. We think a playground like that belongs at a community park," he said, adding that doesn't mean it doesn’t belong somewhere else, like a school.

Attendees of the Nov. 15 meeting floated the idea of forming a sub-committee to work on designing an inclusive park, using the work done as a springboard to secure more cash for it.

Barker said at the meeting there are resources and people who have started such parks from scratch that give guidelines and protocols on how to get money independent of city funding.

"There is a way to go about it, and we don't have to blaze the trail, so to speak," she said.

Carlson was frank about the time constraints on getting plans together for an inclusive, barrier-free playground, but urged attendees to push for it anyways.

"It's going to take a lot of work because the timeframe is very tight, and at the end of the day we might not achieve our goal," he said. "But, we definitely won't achieve it if we don't try."

 

–Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com.

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