Park upgrades planned

Splash pad, pickleball courts, playground updates all in the works for Springfield parks

click to enlarge Park upgrades planned
A $600,000 state grant will help transform the site of the 60-year-old Veterans Memorial Pool in Gielt Park into a huge splash pad that will be four to five times larger than that of Southwind or Comer Cox parks.

Summer is peak time for fun in Springfield parks, and there's plenty of work going on behind the scenes that the public doesn't see but is necessary to keep our parks in good working order. The Springfield Park District is tasked with maintaining 36 parks, 23 miles of bike trails, more than 20 recreation facilities and outdoor amenities and 322 acres of nature preserve.

"We have a very full plate of things we're doing now," said Leslie Sgro, president of the Springfield Park District board, noting that it's a constant balancing act of fixing, replacing or upgrading existing park structures and creating new ones.

"We have one of the oldest park districts in Illinois," Sgro said. Created in 1900, the Springfield Park District was the second park district organized in the state.

That means there are substantial financial expenditures on aging structures and equipment, such as the refrigeration systems for the ice rink at Nelson Center and repairs on both the dome and the heating and cooling system at Washington Park Botanical Garden. Sgro explained, "We're replacing old systems for more energy-efficient ones that are also more cost-efficient."

Sgro said, "We're also spending money on some fun things. We've received several state grants over the last five years that enabled us to do the overhaul of Iles Park." Kiwanis Park, 3050 Stanton Dr., used grant money for a walking path, lights, upgrades to the fields, new bathrooms, shelter and grills and a whole new play system that should be completed in the next few months. Sgro said, "It gives me great joy seeing people use the parks after improvements have been made."

The state also awarded the Park District $600,000 to help transform the site of the 60-year-old Veterans Memorial Pool in Gielt Park into a huge splash pad that will be four to five times larger than that of Southwind or Comer Cox parks. It will feature many creative elements for kids of all ages, slides and shaded areas.

Veterans Memorial Pool is closed for this season so that demolition work can begin. "I can't promise it will be ready for next summer, but that's the goal," said Sgro. "It will be very interactive, and we're tremendously excited about that."

A new exhibit at Henson Robinson Zoo is getting ready to open in the building where the lemurs and langurs live. Sgro explained that at one time this building was in complete disrepair, and now it's a functioning structure that provides habitats for the animals. Sgro pointed out that this is another example of why partnerships are so important to the Springfield Park District, allowing projects to be completed as needed.

For each grant received by the Springfield Park District, Sgro explained, the district puts up a match. Grants come from a variety of sources such as the state, local organizations and private donors. Some people leave money to the Park District in their will.

"We have amazing people and groups in our community who support our parks," said Sgro. "When we partner up, we're able to do so much more. I love our parks, and I'm grateful that the community and donors trust us to make the necessary improvements for the benefit of everyone who visits our parks."

Sgro said the Springfield Park District has recently received multiple grants from a private donor who prefers to remain anonymous. The first grant was $100,000, and recently that same donor gave $80,000 and requested it go to two parks – Lindbergh and Indian Hills. Each park will get $40,000 plus the matching funds from the district for new play systems. Sgro is hoping the projects will be finished this fall but said the district is busy with multiple projects.

Two different projects are in the works at Washington Park, thanks to help from donors.

The Rees Carillon Society raises money for the Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon in Washington Park and recently donated funds for the purpose of lighting the carillon. Sgro said, "We still have electrical work to do, and when that's finished, we'll be able to light the carillon for events in the park."

The McDrew Tennis & Jazz Festival, an annual event that raises funds for local charitable organizations, gave $50,000 to repair all the tennis courts at Washington Park.

Coming up fast on the heels of tennis is pickleball – the fastest growing sport in America, according to the Association of Pickleball Professionals. The sport has gained such popularity in Springfield that more courts are needed.

Dave Marsh, a semi-retired lobbyist, Springfield resident and avid pickleball player, learned the Springfield Pickleball Club was looking to raise funds for new courts, and he offered to lobby on behalf of the club. He worked with State Sen. Doris Turner, D-Springfield, who sponsored the appropriation, and State Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield, who served as the cosponsor. They were successful in getting more than $1 million earmarked for new pickleball courts in Centennial Park and revamping the existing courts in Iles Park.

"It is incredible to me and so rewarding to work with our partners and make wonderful things happen as we balance between what the older facilities need and the new things like pickleball courts," said Sgro. "It's a process. It's always hard when we have millions of dollars of need, and that's why partnerships are so important to us," she said.

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