Reclaiming Kids’ Castle

IMG_1953As someone who grew up in Harrisonburg, I spent many a childhood afternoon and weekend enjoying the public parks the city offered.  However, around the age of ten, the city constructed a new structure in Purcell Park called Kids’ Castle.  Made primarily of wood, with a few bits of metal and rubber, the place was absolutely fantastic.  Without a doubt, it was one of my favorite spots and so I often begged my parents to take me there.

Several weeks ago, I got together with a friend who lives near Purcell Park and so I suggested taking a walk through the area.  Although I had visited the park several months prior, this time I took the opportunity to return to my childhood destination of Kids’ Castle.

Unfortunately, what I discovered was very distressing; the wooden structure was falling into disrepair.  Many of the metal surfaces had begun to rust, some of the boards were exceedingly worn, a few nail ends were visible, ready to pierce the hands of unaware children, a tire bridge was actively disintegrating, and a handful of weeds grew up through the gravel.  Although it was beginning to rain, I toured a bit of the castle and nearly fell on an exceedingly slippery piece of wood.  It was as if Kids’ Castle had been more or less forgotten, abandoned these last 22 years.

I brought up this matter during the public forum of the next meeting of the Harrisonburg City Council.  Reaction from the council was mixed.  For example, Council Member Chenault mentioned that a newer park, A Dream Come True, over on the west end of the city was built to replace Kids’ Castle and given the sorry state of the facility, it might be best to tear it down.  After the meeting, I received an email from Council Member Degner and a phone call from Council Member Shearer; due to these contacts, I also spoke to the manager of Harrisonburg’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Yesterday, I was featured on WHSV TV-3 to briefly speak about the matter.  That segment, which aired at 11 PM last night, can be found at this link.

It is my great hope that Kids’ Castle can be repaired so that the present and next generation of children can treasure it as much as I once did.  And, assuming I ever experience the joy of children of my own, I’d very much like for them to have a wonderful and nearby place to play outside, a recreational option that is much healthier than the hours of television or video games that parents increasingly rely upon these days.

So what will happen next?  Well, as a result of the city council meeting and the reporting of WHSV, I’ve been told that the city is planning to repair much of Kids’ Castle by the end of July.  It is excellent news.  It is time to reclaim Kids’ Castle!

A City Council Surprise

Harrisonburg City CouncilLast night, the Harrisonburg City Council held their bi-monthly meeting.  As I sat in my chair waiting for the 7 PM start time, one of the regular attendees leaned across the aisle and told me that he saw me on the TV speaking about the city owned golf course.  He went on to say that the golf course was here to stay and that city parks and recreations were not in the business of making money.  I agreed that parks weren’t designed to turn a profit and asked him if he knew of any privately run parks in the area.  Neither of us could name one.  However, I then countered that golf courses can be a source of revenue and asked if he knew of any privately run courses.  He said that he didn’t know of any and, at that point, I realized discussing this point further with him would not be particularly useful.

Anyway, as for the official council meeting itself, most of the event was business as usual, such as the time for public discourse and discussing tax exemptions for a charity.  However, things got a bit more interesting when the subject shifted to energy efficiency in the city.  Recently, the city has been considering the idea of improving energy efficiency in its buildings, a commendable idea as it will likely provide a significant savings to city taxpayers.  As a result, Council Member Kai Degner crafted a deal with a company who specializes in this kind of work to make these improvements.  However, the city manager declared this action was quite irregular as normally these issues are typically explored by the city staff, bids are accepted from a number of companies, and then the council picks the option that they feel best suits the city.  Although it is good to see Kai Denger working hard on this issue, given that neither the majority of council nor the Harrisonburg staff seemingly had a hand in this company’s selection, if the idea moved forward, it could bear the stain of crony capitalism.

Harrisonburg Mayor Ted Byrd argued that in the interests of the free market, the council should not simply accept the company of Degner’s choosing without considering other avenues.  When Degner proposed going ahead with the desired company, it seemed quite likely that the vote would fail.  This fact is significant because, of the multitude of council meetings that I have attended over the last six months, not a single proposal had failed nor had the vote been anything but unanimous.  Cognizant of such a possibility, Council Member Degner revised his proposal to allow other companies to bid for this contract as well.

At this point, Council Member Abe Shearer raised a new point.  Why should the council only allow companies who offered a money back guarantee for their work to bid for this project?  If the council could find a company with a good reputation who did not have such a guarantee, and at a considerable savings, shouldn’t they have the same chance to offer their services as well?  Vice Mayor Charlie Chenault seemed to disapprove of that idea.

In the vote that followed, Degner and Chenault approved the revised plan, as did Council Member Richard Baugh who declared that he was satisfied with this compromise.  Although clear that the measure would pass despite their objections, both Mayor Byrd and Council Member Shearer voted no.

As mentioned, I’ve attended quite a few council meetings as of late.  However, last night marked a first, the first time that I was proud of my council for voicing my shared concerns about a fair and open process, for supporting the ideals of the free market, and for demonstrating that they are more than a monolithic group, a rubber stamp for any and every proposal that is presented to them.  Returning to an earlier subject, last night gave me hope as well that the council might one day jettison the golf course, realizing that its public ownership is not a proper function of local government.

I appreciate Council Member Baugh for not simply accepting the first proposal as stated.  However, I write this post especially to praise Mayor Byrd and Council Member Shearer for their firm stands at Tuesday’s meeting.

Addressing The Council

Harrisonburg City CouncilLast night, the Harrisonburg City Council assembled for their bi-monthly meeting.  Although I had attended several of their gatherings over the last few months, tonight I went for a specific purpose; I planned to speak with the council regarding pedestrian safety in the city.

When the mayor motioned for me to approach the podium, my heart became a jackhammer in my chest.  For those who know me, this reaction might seem rather strange.  After all, I love speaking about politics with anyone and everyone who cares to listen (as well as many people who don’t).  However, this experience brought back a rather harsh memory, a reminder of the last time that I spoke before the council.

If we rewind the clock, 2006 marked both the first and only time that I stood before the Harrisonburg City Council.  Back then, the council held a public forum regarding selling the Harrisonburg High School building to James Madison University.  As it turned out, the hearing was little more than a formality.  Looking back, it seemed that the deal was more or less made and whatever the public opinion happened to be, it mattered little to the members of council.  As I recall, they weren’t a particularly receptive or sympathetic group and offering my opinion to them was a waste of time.

However unreceptive that council happened to be, the Harrisonburg School Board was far worse.  Arguing that the city schools shouldn’t forgo any usable classroom space, I informed the board about my experiences in 8th grade at Thomas Harrison Middle School; where I spent a good chunk of my days in one of those trailer units and how, when we got a heavy rain, I had to place a trashcan on my desk to collect the rainwater which dripped through the leaky roof.  Once I relayed my thoughts, I left the meeting.  I was told that after I did so, one of members of the school board stated that I was a liar.  As you might imagine, news of this allegation made me so incensed that I located my 8th grade homeroom teacher, a woman that I had not seen in many years, to see if she would either deny or confirm what I had said.  Yes, she told me that my memory was correct.  Another bitter pill to swallow was the fact that most of the councilmen and school board members, including the one who claimed I was deceptive, were fellow Republicans!

So, getting back to last night, with all of these thoughts in my mind as I spoke before the council, I felt that my words were horribly nervous and disjointed and, although I had planned what I wanted to say beforehand, nothing came out right.  It was an important issue, but, at that moment, I thought I was a poor spokesman.  I tried to remedy the situation in my mind by reminding myself that all but one of these men were not the same as the ones from 2006, that I had spoken to each previously and, with the possible exception of Mr. Chenault, each knew me and presumably we had some measure of respect for each other.  In fact, in mid 2012, Mayor Byrd told me that he read this blog.  But the memories from over half a decade ago gone by proved to be too strong.  Hopefully, they will lessen in time, but I believe that I must force myself to go before the council again, (once I have something important to discuss) so that these newly rediscovered demons from the past can be put to rest.

My take-home message to you, the reader, is as follows.  No one should ever be afraid to talk with their elected representatives, be they local, state, or federal.  Don’t ever be tricked into thinking that you exist to serve the government; the government exists to serve you.  And so friends, I encourage you once again to study the important political issues of the day, speak out when the time calls for it, and never be cowed into silence, as I was for many years in local matters.

In liberty, now and always!