By Rebecca Holland
Twelve years ago, our community built a large playground at Travers Park with public funds and two special-needs foundation grants for $50,000. A large chunk came from “Superman” himself, by way of the Christopher Reeves Foundation. It is extra special because it offers ADA-access to children with disabilities by way of a concrete ramp leading into its upper level.
All in all, the equipment is in good shape. On the ground surface, it would be nice to improve the ADA-access by retrofitting with a rubberized product or mats. Nearby, a sturdy picnic shelter with ADA-access connects with the playset, allowing adults to enjoy watching young ones at play. Many children from the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as several local school groups, use this playset and picnic shelter regularly.
Now as a part of the City’s Travers Park Renovation Plan, city planners want to take down both to build a 34,000-square-foot indoor sport facility for tennis and pickleball in their place this summer.
In March 2022, the city was generously gifted $7.5 million to honor James Russell, who grew up here in the 1930s and ’40s. Originally, their plan was to construct a 45-foot-tall building over the existing outdoor courts next to the playground. However, months later, staff said there were soil problems around the courts, so a location change was needed.
Without seeking any public input, staff changed to the playground site and ran more soil tests there. In a public record request, I received the geotechnical reports for both sites. The professional evaluation stated the same for both locations: “The site is suitable for the planned developments.”
I suspect the real underlying reason to change location was “the tennis community doesn’t want to lose their outdoor courts,” as City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton has told the City Council.
In hopes of rebuilding the playground in a year or two, the city staff applied for a $500,000 state grant. As with all state grants, the Sandpoint residents would need to match it (if and when it comes). According to drawings, the city would rebuild a different style playground over an artificial turf product with an “Into the Woods” themecloser to the parking lot. All in all, it is a wasteful approach to take down a perfectly good playset. To reuse the playset features, 24 large metal supports will need to be replaced.
The only good news being offered is the addition of the long-awaited splash pad for water play. However, the city could fulfill this promise to families by building a splash pad next to the existing playground for a lot less money than their delayed $1 million plan. How about adding a kids’ splash pad this summer?
City staff like to point to online surveys to back claims of public involvement. So it should be noted, their 2019 survey asked residents, “What other activities do you enjoy?” after covering questions on organized sports at Travers Park. Respondents answered: 58% go to the playground vs. 26% go to play tennis.
It’s understandable the tennis community doesn’t want to lose their four outdoor courts, where the SHS tennis team also practices, but the city’s decision to leave a large number of families without an ADA-accessible playset is just not right.
At the March 15 council meeting, I asked councilors to schedule a workshop and online survey for the community to weigh in on choosing the location for the new tennis-pickleball facility. There are numerous options on the 18 acres of Travers Park and 18 acres at Centennial Park directly to the north. An architect has been hired to produce drawings and specs, but it’s not too late to choose a better site for the James Russell Sports Facility.
I tend to believe that James Russell, who is portrayed as the spirited young character Retch Sweeney in the Patrick McManus books many of us have read, would want his memory honored in a way that is pleasing for both our local neighborhood children and the tennis community here.
Please email or talk to your favorite councilor ASAP, before the Travers Park playground gets completely fenced off.
Rebecca Holland is a 48-year Sandpoint resident, longtime owner of a school-sports photography business and former member of the Sandpoint Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee.
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