Plans for a playground in Evesham ruffle some feathers

Brothers Noel (left) and Nelson Vasquez swing their daughters at the Memorial Field playground. Its creators recognize the need for a replacement, but they want to re-create the feel of the original.
Brothers Noel (left) and Nelson Vasquez swing their daughters at the Memorial Field playground. Its creators recognize the need for a replacement, but they want to re-create the feel of the original. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 04, 2013

Once upon a time a magic kingdom, designed by children and built by volunteers, sprouted almost overnight in Evesham.

It had turrets and slides, jiggly stairs, secret passages, sandboxes, and a pirate ship with anchors on the side, all made of wood. Children from around the township and beyond came to Memorial Field to play in it.

But 21 years passed. The park grew tired and began to splinter.

And so, this month, bulldozers will demolish the Scott Rand Playground, named for the late resident who guided its creation. A contractor will replace it with a new playground of vinyl and steel, based on designs chosen by township officials.

Janet Rand, Scott's widow, wishes it could be otherwise.

"I understand it's time" for a new playground, she said on a visit to the park Monday.

As she spoke she touched a long, sharp length of split wood on the bench where she sat with her business colleague, Jeff Barnett, who helped create the park.

Despite the evidence of aging, "they're destroying something we created," said Barnett, a Marlton accountant. As they spoke, about 25 children ran, climbed, and shouted around them. Rand is the office manager at Barnett's office.

The two say township officials have left them and other residents out of the replacement process, which they only learned about through newspaper stories last summer. "You would think they would have told us," she said.

Despite their initial shock, they approached Township Manager William Cromie in August about re-creating the look and feel of the playground by turning again to the Ithaca, N.Y., design firm of Robert Leathers & Associates.

Cromie seemed receptive, they said, and in December they met with him and Mayor Randy Brown and proposed reprising the ambitious $140,000 fund-raising and volunteer construction effort of 21 years ago.

Cromie and Brown told them the town had received a recreation grant of $250,000 from Burlington County to create a new playground that had to be in place in 2013.

Rand and Barnett say they left the meeting believing town officials were receptive to their ideas, only to discover last month that the town had signed contracts to replace Scott Rand Playground with brightly colored structures of vinyl and steel.

Barnett calls that design "conventional," "cookie cutter," and "indistinguishable" from most playgrounds built during the last decade.

"It takes away from the character of Evesham," Barnett said.

Cromie and Brown this week defended the new design and said Rand and Barnett's vision for the site was unworkable.

While the two "have a valid emotional attachment to that playground," Cromie said he believed officials had "come up with what will be really nice, and that people will come to love it."

He said that the county grant not only obviated the need to raise money, as was done 21 years ago, but that a drive and volunteer construction might have taken too long and jeopardized the grant.

Cromie also said that the township "did listen to their ideas" and that the township council last month appropriated $170,000 to expand the original design, based on their suggestions.

The new playground will still be called Scott Rand Playground, Cromie said, and the various plaques commemorating its original creators will stay in place.

The idea for the existing park began about 1989, Rand said Monday, when her husband, a Marlton podiatrist, "fell in love" with a wooden playground in Massachusetts designed by Robert Leathers.

Scott Rand decided to create a similar park in Evesham and launched a fund drive. The goal was $90,000, "and we ended up raising $140,000," said Barnett, who served as treasurer.

Members of Leathers' design team visited "every school in town" to talk with children about what they wanted in a playground. "They said they wanted a castle and a pirate ship and a slippy-slide," he recalled, and months later the designers presented the project leaders with a set of designs and a list of materials.

Dozens of residents built the existing structure in five days in 1992. "We would start at 7 a.m. and work till midnight," said Barnett.

Scott Rand died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1998. He was 44.

Brown said that he also recognized Rand and Barnett's attachment to the site, but he said the state had recently judged its deteriorating wood and natural mulch ground cover dangerous.

"We had two kids break their wrists in the first week [of summer camp] last year," Brown said. "We just couldn't wait."

The summer camp at Memorial Field is also a major source of revenue to the township, he said, and the playground is an important part of the camp.

"We have so many parks in Evesham, 25 or 30, and they all could use refurbishing," Brown said Tuesday. If Rand and Barnett wished to turn their organizational skills to any of those, he said, "we would welcome the conversation."

Reached at his office Tuesday, Barnett said he and Rand would be "happy to talk about other parks if that opportunity presents itself."

But he said he "would love it" if residents who shared his and Rand's affection for the current playground would express their views at the next township council meeting Tuesday. "Maybe we can rally the troops again."

Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841 or or @doreillyinq on Twitter.

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