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Fort Frankfort will be replaced by a new $1.7 million playground

As a new millennium approached nearly a quarter-century ago, a group of residents came together to improve their neighborhood by creating a playground where children could let their imaginations run wild.

Gina Hassett, executive director of the Frankfort Park District, remembers the 1999 efforts well. The Park District donated the land and volunteers came from every neighborhood.

“Private donations, civic organizations, residents. “It was made by the people,” he said. For some in town, the playground “tells them of a time when Frankfort had 3,500 people.”

But because it’s made of wood, it’s quickly approaching the end of its useful life, Hassett said. Rain, sun, and snow damaged Fort Frankfort’s structures. Volunteers have done their best to maintain the playground by sanding and treating the wood each year, but now it’s time for something new.

Built by volunteers over a week in October 1999, the wooden Fort Frankfort playground at Sauk Trail and 80th Avenue in Frankfort is getting a major overhaul thanks to a $1.7 million state grant that will make it accessible to more people. (Frankfort Park District)

Fort Frankfort will be reborn, thanks to a $1.7 million donation from the state. Work on the new version of the playground is expected to begin this fall, so the 1999 version will remain open through the summer, Hassett said. He said State Sen. Mike Hastings helped secure the funding.

News of the rebirth of the Fort Frankfort Playground delighted Phil Simmons, 76, fundraising chairman and vice president of the Operation Playground Foundation, which raised close to $120,000 to build the playground. Dozens of residents performed actual physical labor.

Terry Rusin, who no longer lives in Frankfort, “had the original playground idea and took responsibility for making it happen,” Simmons said.

“I was very excited when I heard they were going to do this because there was a certain tradition involved,” Simmons said of the new playground plan.

Hastings and Frankfort Park District Board President Mike McCarey hosted a town hall meeting Feb. 15 to discuss the renovation and gather input. More than 70 people attended to take a look at the design concepts.

Hassett said input from residents is important to ensure the project meets the needs of the community. For one, he said the new playground will allow for participation by people of all abilities.

He said the new playground was paid for this time by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

“The Frankfort Park District is constrained by our funding due to the low tax rate and tax cap. Hassett said the state DCEO funding is a generous allocation going back to Frankfort and is a nice investment in the community. “The reason it’s so expensive is it’s going to make this an inclusive playground to be.”

This inclusivity means that ADA standards for users’ mobility, sensory, and cognitive abilities are part of the planning process.

Rubber or artificial turf will be used under the playing surface, and ramps for the playground will be included in the design, allowing all users to access the equipment more easily. He said the new structure would not be made of wood.

“We see parents and grandparents with mobility issues. “They want to play with the children, but they can’t,” he said.

The Frankfort Park District does not currently have a playground that is considered accessible or inclusive in design.

The Park District is collecting feedback for the new Fort Frankfort Design through a survey posted at: www.frankfortparks.org Hassett said they will incorporate this feedback into the final design.

Nearly 1,000 people took the survey and said they wanted an updated version of the survey. “That’s how we lean,” he said.

“We hope to solidify something by the end of March or early April and then go out to bid,” Hassett said.

Volunteers load wheelbarrows with crushed stone as community members gather to build the Fort Frankfort playground at Sauk Trail and 80th Avenue in Frankfort on Oct. 16, 1999.  Nearly a quarter-century later, the playground will get a major update thanks to a $1.7 million state grant.  (John Smierciak/Chicago Tribune)
Volunteers load wheelbarrows with crushed stone as community members gather to build the Fort Frankfort playground at Sauk Trail and 80th Avenue in Frankfort on Oct. 16, 1999. Nearly a quarter-century later, the playground will get a major update thanks to a $1.7 million state grant. (John Smierciak/Chicago Tribune)

As Simmons points out, if it weren’t for a group of dedicated volunteers in 1999, the Fort Frankfort Playground might not even exist.

“Our first meeting about it was in January. They wanted to build it in October. It was nine months from the time I heard about it until it was completed. It was quite an adventure,” said Simmons.

“Slowly but surely we raised the money. It was challenging to say the least. But the community stepped up and supported him,” said Simmons.

Simmons, who now lives in Florida, is impressed that all the work is done by residents who volunteer “without paid assistance.”

The Fort Frankfort Playground, named by schoolchildren, was built in just one week, and it still impresses Simmons.

“On Monday, they were drawing dots on the ground for the diggers. And on Sunday night, it was done,” he said. “Let me tell you how ‘wow’ this is.”

Three volunteer shifts of 80 to 120 people each worked around the clock. Restaurants in the area donated meals. St. Anthony’s Church was used as a nursery for the children of parents working in the park.

“This was a labor of love. I’m very proud of Frankfurt. They really stepped up,” added Simmons.

Steve Metsch is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.

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