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North Country Park: New playground may offer variety of new ammenities for children

Kaeo Moen, 6, of Bemidji describes his version of a universally accessible playground during a design meeting Thursday evening at the Sanford Center. In back is Brad Thornton, the director of project development with Shane's Inspiration, an organization working with Bemidji as it plans such a playground for North Country Park. Pioneer Photo/Bethany Wesley

A playground with a rubber surface instead of sand or woodchips. Textured faces on which children could run their fingers. A "king of the hill" type of structure with ramps leading up to the very top.

These amenities could be included in North Country Park as the community has begun planning for a playground that could be enjoyed by both able-bodied children and those with disabilities. Stakeholders in the project include the city, Bemidji Lions Club, Bemidji Rotary Club, Arc United and the Parks and Trails Commission.

About 40 people took part in a community planning meeting Thursday evening at the Sanford Center. Led by consultants with Shane's Inspiration, a California-based organization dedicated to the creation of such playgrounds, the group made suggestions for what should be included in Bemidji's accessible playground.

"I want you to let your imaginations run," said Virginia Hatley, director of design with Shane's Inspiration.

Suggestions numbered more than 30 as adults and children alike tossed out ideas such as a hidden treasure sandbox, accessible swings and sand-diggers, punching bags, gliders and more.

"We do all sorts of different types of things," Hatley said. "Not just swings and slides, although swings and slides certainly have their place in the playground."

Shane's Inspiration has done more than 40 playgrounds around the world. They go beyond ADA compliance to ensure that children with disabilities can traverse and enjoy the equipment and features (ADA allows for wood chips, which are difficult to navigate in a wheelchair).

"We've never done one in Minnesota," Hatley said. "So this will be the first."

Marcia Larson, Bemidji's parks and recreation director, said she heard about universally accessible playgrounds and called Shane's Inspiration for guidance.

"I just said, 'We really want to do this. But we don't know how to do it, how we go about doing this,'" she said.

Brad Thornton, the director of project development, told her Shane's Inspiration would lead the process. Shane's Inspiration also will not charge Bemidji a fee. The city has entered into a grant agreement with the organization through which its consultants will provide the planning, design and, once built, programming as well. Programming is designed to get able-bodied children and children with disabilities interacting and playing happily with one another.

"When we're involved in a project, we're in it from the beginning to the end," Thornton said at a Thursday afternoon meeting, "and even when it ends, we stay involved."

Thornton and Hartley compiled all of the ideas presented by participants in the planning session and then asked community members to select their favorite five features.

The top ideas were:

- Rubber surface.

- Sensory area.

- Shade.

- Musical tubes.

- An enclosure around the playground.

- A "king of the hill" type of ramped structure with activities at the top.

- Rock-climbing wall.

- Sand table.

- Spinner.

- Snow-covered tunnel.

Hatley will take the suggestions and develop a concept plan, which stakeholders will use in fundraising efforts and which Shane's Inspiration will also help plan.