Supporters hope to involve children in design of revamped Tapiola ParkEvery kid loves swingsets, monkey bars and merry go-rounds - but what about a playground with pint size versions of the Liberty Theater, the Flavel House or the Astoria Column? Or maybe a cruise ship, a fishing boat or a great big salmon?

Hard to imagine? Not if you're a kid. And local kids are the ones who will get to stretch their imaginations by designing a special, fanciful playground to replace the worn-out equipment at Astoria's Tapiola Park.

The project is the brainchild of Wendy Berezay, whose imagination was sparked when she saw a park on a recent trip to her hometown of Florence, Mont., with play structures that had been built with the help of Leathers & Associates Inc., an Ithaca, N.Y., design firm whose motto is "community-built, builds community."

Berezay was so impressed that she contacted Leathers for information and learned that the company has helped more than 1,700 communities create one-of-kind "educational super-playgrounds," using volunteers to carry out every phase of the project, from fund-raising to construction.

But it won't be cheap.

In a presentation to the Astoria City Council Oct. 4, Berezay explained a custom-designed 15,000-square-foot play area, made from recycled plastic lumber that can be painted and carved, would cost $150,000 to $200,000. Even though that price tag contrasts with an average of $30,000 for play structures at other Astoria parks, council members embraced the idea and voted unanimously to direct city staff to work with the community to raise funds for the project.

A design team meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at Lewis and Clark Elementary School. Organizers hope many in the community will attend and later work together to design, fund and build a playground.

The new play structures will replace one at Tapiola that collapsed two years ago. They will be designed for use by children of all ages, including pre-schoolers and older children, aged eight to 12, who are underserved by existing facilities, said Kevin Beck, Astoria's Parks and Community Services director.

The new structure will be installed over a five-day period of community "barn-raising." Target date is June.

"We have ideas, but the kids will design it," said Sarah Cullison, public relations coordinator for the project. Berezay said children's committees are being set up at Astor, Lewis and Clark and Star of the Sea elementary schools to involve children in the process.

"You take the kids, get them to dream big, and the community comes together and helps them," Berezay said.

She explained that a professional designer will come from Leathers in mid-January for Design Day to meet with the local design committee, and with the kids, who will have been drawing and designing for weeks.

"Then he takes out his blueprints and starts drawing," Berezay said. What he comes up with will be the plans for the community's new playground at Tapiola Park. Those plans will be presented to the community that evening as the climax of Design Day, which is the project's kick-off event.

Beck said the group coordinated by Berezay has done a "fabulous job" in organizing the community so far. Seventy volunteers, including business leaders and parents, are on board, he said, donations are coming in and Todd Cullison is writing grant applications. Carla Oja, who managed Tapiola Pool before it was closed, chairs the fundraising effort.

"Interest has been phenomenal," Beck said.

It's a good thing the community is responding, because the city has only $5,000 in its budget to purchase new equipment for Tapiola Park. A letter and a donation form attached to a playground equipment fact sheet are being distributed throughout the community, asking for a checks payable to Tapiola Playground Fund. Donations, which are tax-deductible, may be dropped off or mailed to Parks Office, 1095 Duane St., Astoria, OR 97103.

Both Beck and Berezay see the new Tapiola playground as a regional attraction for tourists, as well as local residents. And Berezay said the building effort will help bring together a community that was torn apart by strife over school restructuring last year.

Working together to build a new Tapiola playground, parents' love for their children will unite the community, not divide it, she said.

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