Kids Kingdom Debate Hinges on Volunteers; Meeting Tonight to Set Referendum

The debate over a $500,000 Kids Kingdom renovation project centers on whether to use a volunteer labor force.

The purpose of the meeting scheduled for 7:30 tonight [Wednesday] in the Brookfield High School auditorium has shifted from being a yes-or-no vote on to an informational session on the project and a vote to set the date for a referendum.

The project, which was originally slated to be on the ballot for the Parks Round II referendum, was moved to a Town Meeting with split and after Brookfield was awarded .

A petition began circulating after the BOF’s February 9 meeting to move the project back to a referendum. The petition and, to-date, has accumulated over 380 signatures, though only 235 have been officially verified by the Town Clerk’s Office.

The Town Meeting will now be used to have a discussion about the project as it stands and schedule the referendum, which must be between seven and 14 days from tonight’s meeting.

Town officials, pro and con, and petitioners alike all agree with the need to renovate Kids Kingdom and the need to do it sooner than later, as the current structure presents numerous safety hazards. Where they differ, however, is on the price and implementation.

While the speced costs [included above] are itemized, the overall project will be put out to bid once approved, per standard procedure, according to Dennis DiPinto, director of Parks and Recreation.

“This project was intended to go to bid from day one,” DiPinto said. “Just because this guy [Landscape Structures] has worked with us for a year doesn’t mean he gets a half-million dollar project,” he assured.

The bid that goes out, however, will have to specify exactly what the town is looking to purchase, including the labor force.

According to BOF Chairman Bill Tinsley, who was one of the spearheads of the petitioning effort, the playground can be built for between $350,000 and $360,000, with the bulk of the savings coming from eliminating $90,000 worth of installation costs by organizing a volunteer workforce.

“$500,000 is our outside number, it’s not our number,” First Selectman Bill Davidson said, though he added that there was “somewhat of a moral commitment” for the town to spend close to $250,000.

The state grant that was requested by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell and approved by the Bond Commission in December is not a matching grant and has no strings attached to its use, other than it be dedicated to the Kids Kingdom project, however in the conversation that led to the grant request, Davidson proposed that the town would match the state’s donation on the project with a projected cost of $500,000.

“I think it would be totally wrong to do a $300,000 project and say, ‘Thank you, we put in our $50,000 and we’re done,’” he said.

While Tinsley stressed that he “wants to see us build a good playground that meets our needs by this spring,” it is his “personal belief that if we approve half-a-million dollars we’ll spend half-a-million dollars,” he said. Tinsley’s suggestion is that Brookfield residents should vote down the proposal at referendum and send it back to the BOS to consider a volunteer workforce.

The Kids Kingdom playscape, as it stands, .

Though a volunteer force has yet to be put together, “The second we get an approved project, I’m confident that the volunteer workforce will come together,” Tinsley said.

Davidson is less confident that a volunteer force can be put together in time to have the new playground finished by the summer.

“I’m not sure you can spontaneously recreate what Kids Kingdom was,” he said. “Yeah, we did that once, but I’m not sure you can just replicate it.”

According to Davidson, a volunteer effort has to be organic, grassroots and is not something that can be forced.

“The thing about a volunteer group is it comes to you, you don’t go out and get it,” he said. Were a qualified group to come to him with a plan to organize, he would then consider utilizing a volunteer workforce, he said.

This pulling together of a workforce would have to be finished before the project was put out to bid however shortly after the pending referendum to be scheduled for mid March, a mission that took over two years the first time around.

“Many comments are being made comparing this effort with the ‘89ers,” Tinsley said. This time around, because the funding is being secured separately, “that makes the volunteer effort for this playground much more focused and timed,” he suggested

“The irony of this whole thing is that when we proposed the playground way back then, this [it being built by volunteers] was the biggest controversy then,” said Nancy Power, who organized the 1989 effort along with Linda Mitten.

Though the fundraising effort took over two years, it was also a major reason the 1989 organizers were able to get so many volunteers to help with the construction, according to Power.

“With the fundraising, people became more aware of it,” she said, adding that she believes it would be much harder to get the same turnout today. “It was much easier 20 years ago — people weren’t working two jobs, there was more time,” Power said, reflecting on the former size of the PTOs and other volunteer organizations compared to their numbers today.

While Power wasn’t able to estimate how long it might take to cull together a volunteer force absent the fundraising process, overall, recruiting and organizing a few thousand volunteers is a “tremendous undertaking,” she said. “Huge.”

One local man who is familiar with organizing over a thousand volunteers to a single purpose, , who runs the , came forward to offer his expertise, but backed away due to the daunting size of the effort.

“It’s beyond our capabilities,” Brady said, as he would have to be dedicated to the project for the entire summer, forcing him to forego the other aspects of his ministry: helping to fix up the homes of those in need.

“I spoke with the First Selectman” about the project and came to the conclusion that “the guys that do it everyday are the guys who should be doing it — the professionals,” he said.

A professional crew that helps design playgrounds and organize a volunteer workforce also came forward, Must Have Play, a splinter company from Leathers, which helped Power, Mitten and the 1989 effort.

Must Have Play’s Michael Cohen, who worked for Bob Leathers up until his retirement a few years ago, has offered free consultation to build a Kids Kingdom II in the same style as the existing playground for $250,000.

Cohen stated that his company helps through the entire process, from designing something that the community wants to bringing together a volunteer force and organizing and supervising the build. He was also “very confident” that for the $250,000 quote, Brookfield would be able to build a playground with a comparable “play value” as the one there now.

“It will not look like the Landscape Structures design,” Cohen admitted. “If you want a manufactured playground, then Landscape Structures is as good as it gets. But if you want something like Kids Kingdom, then we are confident that we can help you achieve that for a whole lot less money.”

As with the Landscape Structures design, a Must Have Play structure would be “more than fully ADA compliant,” according to Cohen, “To the letter and the spirit of the law.”

Davidson was against going with Must Have Play’s proposal, as he believes the bid should be awarded to “a proven operator and a playground that we think is appropriate for the town of Brookfield.”

Cohen and his team have worked in the business for many years (almost a century collectively, according to Cohen), “As their own stand alone company, they don’t have a history,” Davidson said.

Going with the Must Have Play design route would mean a dramatically different Kids Kingdom II from the one proposed, however Landscape Structures also offers a community-build option.

According to their website, the company has overseen the installation of thousands of volunteer-built playgrounds and offers community-build consultations as part of their projects.

Rob Gianazza June 23, 2011 at 12:32 PM
Perhaps it has something to do with FACT checking and getting the story correct instead of fast? I have seen many negative comments and inaccurate statements made. It is refreshing to be presented with a well researched and accurate account of what transpired. Perhaps many of us could learn something from Mr. Boyd's approach?
Michelle June 23, 2011 at 02:35 PM
Dear Concerned Brookfield Citizen...I am unable to spear head this project. However, I have offered to volunteer in several capacities in the inpletation of this project as well as my husband. I have also offered to give suggestions at any time. When this playground is finally getting done--I will be there giving my time and labor for my children and my friends children. Just like I was there as a kid, watching my father and my future father in law work hard to build Kids Kingdom. I am available to consult and give suggestions at any time. It would be my pleasure in doing so.
Concerned Brookfield Citizen June 23, 2011 at 04:03 PM
Michelle, if you cannot spearhead organizing a volunteer effort, do you know who can? Further, we have been talking about this project for almost 2 years. During that time, there have been numerous cries for somebody to lead a volunteer effort and NOBODY ever steps forward. Volunteerism is great. I do it. But I am getting sick and tired of people wondering why "somebody" doesn't organize a volunteer effort. You don't have time. I don't have time. Don't ya think that if anybody was going to do it, they would have stepped forward already?
John Hawley June 23, 2011 at 05:24 PM
Hey, CBC;, you seem to be sick and tired of peple wondering why "somebody" doesn't organize it, why don't you? You have the experience and apparent interest.....go for it.
BobCat June 23, 2011 at 05:40 PM
This thread has degenerated into a waste of time.


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