Summer 2017 in Juneau has been cold and wet, but at least we’ve not been bothered by forest fires, which in recent years have been a real menace across the Last Frontier. One conflagration that struck the capital city this past year still bears tremendous scars and negatively affects many Juneau residents. On April 24, the beloved and popular Twin Lakes Playground burned to the ground in a completely unexpected and viciously sudden blaze.
Twin Lakes Playground had been a treasured community asset that began to take shape back in 2006. At that time, several Juneau parents sought to create a public play area for children.
The effort was dubbed Project Playground, and it involved a firm from New York and a committee of motivated local parents. These partners set themselves an ambitious goal of raising $200,000 and elected to use a robust, community-driven process to create the final product.
In mid-winter 2006, a design professional from New York visited Juneau and directly engaged schoolchildren to learn their playground wishes. Meetings with young Juneau residents from many local schools yielded design parameters, which was executed here in Juneau and unveiled for the community.
After plans were drawn up, an ambitious plan for community-driven fundraising and construction ensued, with the project to be built on land designated by the City and Borough of Juneau for the project. A key part of fundraising was sale of engraved fence pickets to individuals and businesses, also prudent to allow encircling the playground to keep children from straying into the waters of Twin Lakes.
Project Playground was a smashing success. More than $1 million was raised to fund the effort which was completed in June 2007. For a decade, Project Playground was a beautiful attraction atop half an acre at Twin Lakes Park.
The final product displayed a rich tapestry of local features, acknowledging the cornerstone Alaska Native history of Juneau, with elements portraying essential natural environmental attributes and the importance of mining to our history. More than 1,500 Juneau residents donated more than 17,000 hours to create Project Playground, which was actually constructed in a few short weeks.
When tragedy struck this past April, it didn’t take long for the community to respond. Initial reactions included children crying at the loss of their beloved play-space, and speculation by fire professionals that the blaze had been no accident. It took less than an hour for this priceless community asset — something that took years to plan and bring into being — to be reduced to smoldering rubble.
Ironically, at the time of the fire, volunteers involved in its initial creation had been working on signage to celebrate the 10-year anniversary. These dedicated people turned their attention to different and more critical needs, devising a plan and finding resources to rebuild.
Some really great things have happened to restore this community asset, and this important work continues today. Community fundraising efforts have generated significant sums to go toward rebuilding Project Playground.
CBJ’s insurer is covering the costs of cleaning up the burn site, ensuring there are no harmful materials in the soil, and a budget for the basic rebuilding. CBJ has set a deadline of Aug. 7 for design proposals for the new facility, and based upon the results of this process, the new Project Playground Steering Committee will set a new fundraising goal.
The community will once again come together to provide a safe, durable, enchanting place for young people to go and recreate with their families.
Fundraising efforts to date have generated more than $162,000, so there’s a way to go. Members of the Legislature and the legislative community held a fundraising concert soon after the April inferno.
Fundraising efforts over the coming months will seek to fund enhancements and improvements to the playground, including a better turf surface. Project Playground has a Facebook page where those interested can share thoughts and feelings about what has happened and is now underway, and also donate through the Juneau Community Foundation.
As my late father Dr. George Brown used to say (quoting Garrison Keillor), “Nothing you do for children is ever wasted,” and this project proves that to be true.
• Ben Brown is a lifelong Alaskan and Juneau resident, and serves as chairman for the Alaska State Council on the Arts.