Hermiston’s city council chambers were full on Monday night.
Residents weren’t there to fight a controversial ordinance or complain about rising utility rates They were there to pledge their support in rebuilding the Funland playground, which burned down at 2:45 a.m. Friday.
Sue Daggett volunteered the help of the Altrusa Club. Tami Rebman of the Columbia Basin Board of Realtors said they were on board to help however they could. Phillip Spicerkuhn, president of the Lions Club, said the Lions were “passionate about helping make sure this resource continues to be a part of the community.” David McCarthy, president of the Hermiston noon Kiwanis Club, offered similar assurances.
“This is the kind of project both our money and our work likes to go to,” he said.
Tony Garber, of the Rotary Club, said Rotarians were ready to help as well. He shared memories of taking various youth sports teams he has coached to the park for after-game celebrations. His wife, a physical therapist, often takes young patients there and watches them play to assess their mobility.
“It’s amazing how many different types of people are there,” he said.
Friday’s fire has prompted an outpouring of grief and generosity from residents who grew up playing on the large wooden play structure or watched children and grandchildren play there. The playground at Butte Park was first built by volunteers and donations in 1996 before being destroyed by arson in 2001 and rebuilt with another round of community support.
No one was ever arrested in the 2001 fire — Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston said the department had a “prime suspect” at the time but was never able to gather enough evidence to make an arrest. This time, Edmiston said, the fire is still under investigation and has not yet officially been ruled arson.
“It’s very much an uphill battle for us, but we have solved uphill battles before,” he said.
Parks and recreation director Larry Fetter said Leathers, the company that designed and built distinctive wooden playgrounds like Funland all over the country, has come out with compressed plastic and metal playgrounds that retain a similar feel but are much more fire-resistant.
He said the city is interested in rebuilding a playground with community involvement that retains the character of the first two Funlands but is fire-resistant, has fewer places to hide from view and has an improved surveillance system.
He said the city would be getting some insurance money but it wasn’t clear yet how much that would be. It was also yet to be determined how much could be salvaged from the park, but Fetter said much of the section that was not blackened had still been damaged by heat.
Fetter and city councilors agreed they needed to quickly put together a committee of councilors and residents to start bringing together community input and resources for the project. Fetter said his goal was to have a plan by October and break ground in February.
The city already has a fund available at city hall for donations.
Charlie and Carol Clupny, who were instrumental in building the first two playgrounds, urged the council to include community members — particularly children — from start to finish.
Carol, who was on the executive committee for the past playgrounds, said it was amazing how much the projects had united the community.
“We had superintendents working alongside dropout kids,” she said. “I think the volunteer aspect is really important to bring people together.”
Charlie was a captain of several crews of volunteers during the 1996 and 2001 builds. He got teary-eyed talking about Friday’s fire.
“I haven’t been over to Funland yet because what burnt is what I was in charge of building,” he said. “I never thought in my lifetime we were going to be building another one of those again.”
On Saturday, from 9 a.m. to noon, hundreds of volunteers from local churches will clean up litter, restore flood-damaged sections of Riverfront Park and do other beautification around town as part of the annual I Love My City event. On Sunday, participating churches will hold a joint worship service at the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center at 10 a.m. Last year’s service drew 1,200 worshippers, and Pastor Terry Haight of Hermiston Assembly of God told the council on Monday that this year he plans to ask attendees to make a generous “love offering” toward the rebuilding of Funland at the service.
Mayor David Drotzmann thanked everyone for their generosity, noting he had hoped to see his future grandchildren play at Funland.
“This community rises to the occasion when it comes to children,” he said.”I think we will have no problem reaching whatever target we need to reach to rebuild.”