A Small Town With A Big Mission

Photos/Renderings: Courtesy of Schmidt Associates

It all started with a Facebook comment complaining that the Covington, Ind., playground needed to be upgraded—the equipment was probably from the 1960s or 1970s. Covington resident Amanda Strawser received a call from Linda McGurk, another local resident, asking her to help raise funds for the park. Just under three years later, the community of 2,700 people in west-central Indiana—surrounded by corn and soybean fields—has its new park.

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The Process
When Strawser received that call, she never knew how long it would take. “It’s a long process,” she comments.

She began by attending a city council meeting asking for permission to raise money. “We didn’t have a park board, and we thought $350,000 would be enough for the project,” Strawser recalls.

After meeting with multiple playground-equipment companies and having them look at the existing park, she quickly realized the project would take more time, effort, and money than previously thought. A community group, The Friends of Covington City Park, was created. Members began visiting parks throughout the area to determine what they liked and to imagine what they might want to see in Covington. They advertised in the local paper and community bulletin for a “Dream and Design” party, held at the local elementary school along with the Parent Teacher Organization. Parents and children were asked to use markers, paint, crayons, and even clay to design and describe their dream playgrounds.

A theme was coming to life: lots of water elements, natural features, and tall structures like a castle or treehouse.

As the dreams grew larger, the potential cost of the improvements increased. Strawser met with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) about grant opportunities. Despite having had a “Dream and Design” party, IDNR required more public input and a comprehensive 5-Year Comprehensive Plan. With only a city councilor in charge of overseeing the park, the mayor recognized the need for a formal park board if the city was going be eligible for funding. Three individuals, including Strawser, were appointed to the board, and they began to work on additional public surveys and the 5-Year Comprehensive Plan.

The community was surveyed, asking about their needs and priorities. It was determined the number-one priority was updating bathrooms and playground equipment, and the second was the public pool. Simultaneously, Strawser and her three kids visited West Park in Carmel, Ind., and loved its natural elements. She reached out to the city of Carmel to get the park plans and the designer—Indianapolis-based architectural and engineering firm Schmidt Associates.

Schmidt Associates was then hired to help guide the creation of a park Master Plan. Landscape Architect Craig Flandermeyer met with Strawser to learn what the community had expressed as their desires for a new park, which led to the development of three conceptual plans. The designs and other playground element pictures were shared at a community meeting, where residents received stickers and walked around to mark their favorite, and least favorite, proposed elements. They also utilized an electronic polling tool called Kahoot! to gather additional data and let the public vote, using their smartphones.

Flandermeyer states, “The energy of the community for the playground was infectious. It became Schmidt Associates’ mission to help them build consensus on a final plan and assist in making it happen.”

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The Park Plan
The data and comments on the three conceptual plans were used to develop a final Master Plan. The Covington City Park is approximately a half acre and includes:

  • A splash pad

  • A composite structure for ages 2 to 5

  • A composite structure for ages 5 to 12

  • A net climbing event

  • A parkour course

  • A sand play area

  • Natural berms for site containment

  • A castle structure

  • A restroom facility with composting toilets

  • A picnic shelter

  • Native plantings.

A video of the rendering was created to show all these elements and how they would link together within the park. The entire plan was estimated to cost just over $1 million.

Fundraising
To start the process, the 5-Year Compressive Plan was written by the park board and submitted to IDNR. The community expressed concerns about how much a grant writer would cost, so the board wrote its own grant request, which ultimately led to a $400,000 Land and Water Conservation grant—still a long way from the goal of $1 million. As Strawser puts it, “We’ve probably done every fundraiser you could think of! Every person in the community knows about this park and/or has donated now due to these efforts.”

  • Fundraising efforts started by selling personalized brick pavers at $100 each for the entryway. This alone made close to $30,000.

  • Movie in the Park nights were held, charging $1 admission and opening concession stands.

  • The board met with local businesses, bringing in the display boards and a video to show how they could benefit from the new park. One company made a $50,000 donation.

  • Local elementary-school students raised $3,500 in two weeks through a penny program. Each class tried to raise $100 from students bringing in loose change. In exchange, the class would have a personalized brick in the park’s entryway. The kids thought the video rendering was a real park and couldn’t believe it was what they were going to have.

In total, over $700,000 was raised, not quite enough for the full park. The community came together even more during the construction phase to realize the additional cost savings needed.

Construction
Strawser comments, “I thought fundraising would be the worst, but the construction process is even more time-consuming. No one here is a professional playground builder.”

The community was an active part of the entire design process for the new Covington City Park, so it only made sense to keep residents involved. There was a big groundbreaking where the local elementary-school choir sang, bringing in more engagement and excitement to the event. There was also an adventure play theme with boxes of activities.

With funds being tight, a community member volunteered services to build the bathroom facility, which would have been approximately $100,000. The city provided some earthwork, drainage, and sewer services. The community is participating in a ”planting day” to plant native vegetation and a butterfly garden, to help reduce the overall project cost. This all allows the community to open the new park in 2018.

Timeline
From the time of the Facebook complaint to the groundbreaking, the project took approximately three years. During this time, the community has come together to support, fundraise, and help build the park so future generations have an improved play area.

Here’s a breakdown of the timeline:

  • 3 to 4 months to garner community support and initiate the project

  • 4 to 6 months for design

  • 2 to 3 months to write a 5-Year Master Plan required by IDNR

  • 1.5 years for fundraising

  • 3 to 6 months for construction.

Lessons learned/advice for others

  • Everything takes longer than expected, even though you want it to happen now.

  • The more people involved, the better the outcome. Find someone to lead a small effort and take ownership of that element. It makes it easier and feels less overwhelming.

  • Small communities can ban together to do something big.

Schmidt Associates is an Indianapolis-based architecture and engineering firm. The associates help educational, lifestyle, workplace, and community clients to optimize their facilities and systems through analysis and strategic implementation. Acting out of a culture of Servant Leadership, they put the needs of their clients first. They are known for providing Better Foresight and Better Insight, and for being Better On-Site throughout projects. They strive to make each project unique and reflective of the culture and values of the client, creating plans and spaces for improved efficiency. For more information, visit www.schmidt-arch.com.