MANATEE -- Manatee County playground fans will soon have a reason to celebrate.
For the first time in several years, three playgrounds at county parks will be replaced with new equipment by the beginning of December. The playgrounds at Buffalo Creek Park, 7550 69th St. E., Palmetto; Braden River Park, 5201 51st St. E., Bradenton; and Ola Mae Sims Park, 11800 Erie Road, Parrish, will be replaced.
"For us, it's a celebration," said Charlie Hunsicker, the county's Parks and Natural Resources Department director. "We are finally doing what we are supposed to be doing."
All county facilities are inspected each year, and the playground inspectors notify the county of any recreational equipment that needs to be repaired or replaced, Hunsicker said. If the county has to repair 60 to 70 percent of the equipment, Hunsicker said it is better to replace with new equipment.
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"They are in such a condition in terms of need of repair, but they are not unsafe," he said.
While the playgrounds at the three parks are still open, the county is planning on closing them right before installation to minimize the time closed to a week or so, said Michelle Richardson, the county's facility operations manager in the Parks and Natural Resources Department.
Replacement is expected to begin the first week of November with Buffalo Creek Park first, then Braden River Park and finishing with Ola Mae Sims Park by December, Richardson said.
"We just looked at the existing equipment that was at each of these parks and we
wanted to replace it with something similar but an upgraded version," she said.
The playground equipment at the three parks is about 16 years old, Richardson said.
"We've gotten the life expectancy out of them," she said. "We will bring something fresh to these parks."
The Braden River Park playground replacement will cost $84,000, with Buffalo Creek playground replacement coming in just less than $73,000 and Ola Mae Sims costing just more than $19,000.
Richardson thinks the community will be happy with the new equipment.
"The equipment up there now is showing its age," she said. "This will definitely give it a fresh look. The equipment at Buffalo Creek and Braden River are very heavily used. I think it will be very much appreciated by the community."
But while the Parks and Natural Resources Department, in partnership with the Property Management Department, was able to make the three new playground sets happen, Hunsicker said the county's playgrounds are "getting older and older and since the recession we've had very limited money to Band-Aid and patch what we can."
"We never allow an unsafe structure to be present," Hunsicker said. If there is an unsafe playground, they will close it or may have to remove it without replacing it.
With breaks, cracks and loose parts occurring all the time, Hunsicker said there are hundreds of thousands of dollars of potential replacement in any one year.
"We went kind of scrambling and pulling from other priorities to fix what needs to be fixed," Hunsicker said.
Fund for repairs needed
A dedicated fund for the repair of equipment and replacement would help so the county would have "a managed plan so that we can forecast our needs and work deliberately to repair them," Hunsicker said.
"We literally work very hard to reprioritize money and fix them as we can," he said. "We don't have a budget for these kinds of catch-up repairs that have been delayed and deferred for now almost nine years. We are not heading to a good ending if we don't, because we will have no choice but to start removing playgrounds."
Hunsicker points to a situation last year at Anna Maria's Bayfront Park when the playground set had to be removed and couldn't be replaced for several months. The county ended up purchasing a floor model from a trade show to replace the playground.
"We are doing things like that," he said. "That doesn't bode well for good planning or deliberate scheduling of repairs. That's not a way we should be doing business, and I think we should be doing much better with the support of our community."
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.