A potential partnership between the Jefferson City Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department and Special Learning Center in its beginning stages could lead to a new facility and an all-inclusive park.
The Everett D. and Geneva V. Sugarbaker Foundation, created by the Sugarbaker family, who were well known in Jefferson City for their community involvement and medical practices, reached out to the Parks Department and SLC before the new year with an idea in mind.
The foundation offered to give JC Parks 13.5 acres of land on the west side of town near Memorial Park and the Cathedral of St. Joseph, between West Main Street and Industrial Drive.
Parks Director Todd Spalding said the foundation wants to see what the department would do with the land before officially giving it.
Spalding and SLC Director Debbie Hamler both received letters from the foundation about the proposal. The agreement would also include providing land, within the 13.5 acres, for a new facility for the Special Learning Center.
The Sugarbaker family has ties to both organizations. Geneva Sugarbaker served on the Jefferson City Parks and Recreation Commission as well as the Peter Pan School — which eventually merged with the Goshorn Handicapped Center to form the Special Learning Center — met in the basement of the Sugarbaker Clinic.
“When we got the letters, we sat down and just started having conversations like, ‘What can we do?’ Brainstorming sessions,” Spalding said.
They settled on a plan to provide something the Mid-Missouri area currently lacks — a park and playground that is 100 percent accessible to all ages and abilities.
“Let’s design a park that not just has elements of inclusiveness in it but is designed for everyone to play together,” Spalding explained.
In 2018, 26 percent, or one in four, adults in the United States had some type of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number for children is a little lower, with roughly one in six children between the ages of 3-17 having one or more disability, including learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders.
In Missouri, about 29 percent of adults have some type of disability, according to the CDC.
An all-inclusive or fully accessible park would allow for a full park experience for children and adults with disabilities, from the playground equipment and other amenities to trails and access to the site.
“Our goal would be 100 percent, which is a lofty goal, but it’s what the truly inclusive playgrounds have,” Spalding said.
To be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, playgrounds must be accessible via ramps or paved, barrier-free travel routes, include a range of play options, and provide an appropriate surface beneath all accessible equipment.
The ADA also requires a certain number of ground-level components — like stand-alone swingsets, solitary slides and seesaws — to be accessible. For example, a set of four swings must have at least one swing that is accessible.
For elevated components — those accessed or exited above or below ground level as part of a play structure — at least half must be accessible via barrier-free paths, ramps or transfer systems. The number of required accessible components depends on the total number.
Spalding said some Jefferson City parks have elements of inclusive play, but none are fully accessible.
Companies selling playground equipment offer a range of components specifically designed for children with disabilities, from wheelchair-accessible play sets and swings to sensory play components for those on the autism spectrum.
“Our city needed an inclusive playground,” Hamler said. “Really, we want that playground to be for birth to death ages of people — elderly people, young kids — and then people with a disability and people of all abilities.”
During a meeting Tuesday, the Parks and Recreation Commission approved a contract for preliminary schematic designs from The Architects Alliance for the park portion of the land.
The contract is for phase one of the process — a schematic design of park function spaces, conceptual floor plan and site plan options and initial sketch or narrative plans. The total cost is $48,550, to come out of the parks account.
According to the agreement, the intent of the first of two phases is to estimate the scope, schedule and budget of the project. Phase two would include the actual design development, construction and bidding.
There are currently no fully accessible parks in the Mid-Missouri area. In nearby Linn, Osage County Special Services is partnering with Unlimited Play in St. Peters to raise funds for an inclusive playground.
Osage County Special Services Executive Director Megan Reichart said they have raised more than $140,000 of their $350,000 goal on the project.
The Jefferson City project would also include a new building for the Special Learning Center, currently located at 1115 Fairgrounds Road in a building leased from the Jefferson City School District. Hamler said they would return the current building to JC Schools if the project continues.
“I really believe this is such a great, perfect partnership, and I would’ve never dreamed of it,” Hamler said.
Spalding said the Parks Department is committed to providing an equitable parks experience for the entire community.
“I think it would show how serious we are — and how serious we want to be — with equitability in our parks. Everyone deserves parks — everyone,” Spalding said. “And making this would be just a huge step in making our parks even more equitable.”
If the process moves forward, it will likely take several years before a park is in place, but Spalding and Hamler believe it will be worth the wait to provide the inclusive park for Jefferson City residents and visitors.
“I think it’s going to be a state-of-the-art facility here in Jefferson City, and people from all over the state will probably come to the playground. It’s going to be really neat,” Hamler said. “I wish I could just wiggle my nose and go forward like three or four years and just be there.”