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Playground plans advance as fundraising campaign nears

The design for Bemidji's proposed universally accessible playground includes play areas for 2- to 5-year-olds and 5- to 12-year-olds. There would be a nature-inspired play structure with slides, an accessible sand table and dig area, sensory wall, musical area and swings.

BEMIDJI - While Bemidji playgrounds are ADA compliant, they do not necessarily foster side-by-side play between disabled and able-bodied children. Wheelchair-users, for instance, cannot traverse playgrounds filled with wood chips.

But a new Bemidji playground would be built for all children.

Plans are advancing for a universally accessible playground, which would be built in North Country Park along 30th Street Northwest.

"It would be a regional amenity," said Marcia Larson, Bemidji parks and recreation director, noting that users would come from 50 miles away. "There's just no other accessible, universal playground in this area."

A community planning session last October with Shane's Inspiration, a California nonprofit leading the planning and design process. Shane's Inspiration will not charge Bemidji a fee; it has provided the city a grant through which its consultants will design and, once built, offer programming to get able-bodied children and children with disabilities playing with one another.

The design for the playground is based on the input from more than 40 people who attended the planning session last fall.

The design, done uniquely for each of Shane's Inspiration's playground, will showcase a northwoods theme. Features will include play areas for 2- to 5-year-olds and 5- to 12-year-olds. Proposed are: an accessible sand table and dig area, sensory wall, musical area and swings, including molded high-back swings and an oodle swing (a circular disc-like swing that can hold more than one child). There also will be a nature-inspired play structure with slides.

Most of the play area would have a rubberized surface - instead of the usual wood chips - to "allow any child or adult with mobility challenges the ability to reach all areas of the play area."

That surface - of major importance in universally accessible playgrounds - also accounts for a big chunk of their costs. The cost estimate for Bemidji's proposed playground is $631,500, of which about $100,000 is for the rubberized surfacing.

Larson said the rubberized surface is about 75 percent more than traditional wood chips, but it truly allows all children access to all play areas.

The Bemidji Lions Club is partnering with the city on the project, pledging to raise $50,000 between two local Lion's groups. Larson also is applying for a grant through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for $85,000, which the city would match through general parks funds.

A committee has been working on the project, Larson said, and is finalizing plans for a fundraising campaign. She expects construction on the park to be done in phases.

"I think it would be wise to see how much money we can raise over a year and then start construction," Larson said.