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Johnson's 'castle' playground nearing end of its useful life

Rick Wagner • Jan 22, 2015 at 4:01 PM

KINGSPORT — Volunteers helped build the "castle playground" of Kingsport a quarter of a century ago, and kids have been playing there ever since.

But it is showing its age and will need to be renovated or replaced in a few years at an estimated cost of $110,000 or $250,000, respectively, according to Johnson Elementary School Principal Stacy Edwards and Parent Teacher Organization President Courtney Hobbs. That compares with the original 1990 price of $75,000.

However, if a new playground is built, Edwards and Hobbs said it would reflect the same castle style as the original.

Almost 25 years ago, in the fall of 1990, the community came together to build a new playground at Johnson in four days.

"The playground was really ahead of its time in regards to accessibility," Edwards told the Board of Education at its Tuesday work session.

However, in answering a question from BOE member Eric Hyche, Edwards said the playground at best may have five years of life left without some major work.

"It's anyone's guess how close we are to the end," Edwards said.

Volunteers constructed what national playground design firm Leathers & Associates laid out.

Since then, several generations of children from the area have played and had birthday parties there.

But much of the wood that makes up much of the infrastructure of the playground has dried, splintered and started to fall apart.

And a tire swing no longer functions because the chains suspending the tires in the air have cut through the tires.

Edwards said most playgrounds of this type have a 20- to 25-year life span, although Hobbs said a new one with modern composite materials might last 50 years..

Identified in a 1990 Kingsport Times-News report as the "Andrew Johnson/Civitan Community Play Structure," the castle playground is among more than 3,000 nationwide designed by Leathers & Associates.

Local volunteers, as well as students from Berea College and East Tennessee State University, joined to construct the playground.

Hobbs said the PTO last year created a separate bank account to hold money earmarked for the project. So far, that account has $10,000, a school spokeswoman said.

Michael Cohen, a former associate with Leathers & Associates, who now works for Play By Design last year performed a safety audit on the structure. Parts of it have been removed over the years because of safety concerns, and some of the wood has been replaced, Edwards said.

Hobbs and Edwards said Cohen came up with two options.

One is to renovate the playground at a cost of $110,000 to meet current safety and Americans with Disabilities Act standards, as well as bring back more play value and extend the usefulness of the structure for "several years," Hobbs said.

The other is to replace it at a cost of $250,000. That plan would meet safety and ADA regulations, provide better sight lines to observe kids on the playground, add new elements and remove all wood construction in favor of a composite that looks like wood but lasts much longer.

"This is not going to be a large departure from what is there now," Edwards said.

Edwards said the goal for now is to raise awareness and build community support for the playground project.

BOE member Todd Golden suggested school officials contact Mary Steadman, who is involved with the Boundless Playground at Warriors Path State Park, while BOE President Carrie Upshaw suggested the school reach out to those who grew up playing on that playground, a much larger group than just present and past Johnson students.

"Because of its location, it is used by the entire community," Upshaw said.

BOE Vice President Susan Lodal said the playground project could be integrated into the 100th anniversary of the city school system coming up in 2017. Former BOE member and former BOE President Pat Turner was chairwoman of the original playground effort, Lodal said.

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