The Castle: Playground at Johnson slated for replacement in October

Rick Wagner • May 22, 2016 at 6:00 PM

KINGSPORT — With about $40,000 in hand of $375,000 needed, a fundraising campaign is about to launch for the fall replacement of the iconic community castle playground at Johnson Elementary School.

The current playground, which would be 26 years old in November, is built from wood and is basically at the end of its useful life, while the new one will be made of a composite projected to last 50 years. Although Parent Teacher Organization President Courtney Hobbs and PTO Playground Committee publicity head Shannon Morelock said the current structure is safe, they said the committee plans to replace it with a community build project designed by Play by Design if fundraising allows.

“It’s a band-aid on a wound, if you will,” Morelock said of the replacement of some boards and other work.

 The new playground is to have a new name: The Castle. The current playground, built in 1990 with the Civitan Club heading up the effort, was called  the Andrew Johnson/Civitan Community Play Structure, according to a 1990 Kingsport Times-News article.

This summer, plans are to have fundraisers at the playground, including food trucks and live music.

Morelock said the playground designs include an enclosed area for toddler pre-school children, as well as a space for special needs children and those with mobility issues. He said three of the four special needs classes in Kingsport’s elementary schools are at Johnson. The toddler area mostly would serve the community, Hobbs said, although Johnson does have a pre-kindergarten program.

“This is a community playground that is being funded and constructed by the community,” Morelock said. “It just happens to be situated on an elementary school property. This is for the children, not just the children of Johnson, but the children of the region.”

Morelock, who lives near the school, said that over Christmas folks from seven states used the playground, based on license plate numbers there. During the year, in addition to 500 students at Johnson, he said an estimated 1,500 children from across the region use the structure. While interviewing parents of children using the playground, Morelock said he found consistent users from Johnson City, Gate City, Weber City, Blountville, Colonial Heights, Bloomingdale, Lynn Garden and other communities in Hawkins County, Sullivan County and Southwest Virginia.

“The Castle has built its reputation on the castle design,” Morelock said. That design, based on input from students, has been retained, but some tweaks have been made to plans since they were first unveiled about this time last year.

The playground will be enclosed within a picket fence made of composite material. For $50, individuals, families, groups and businesses can sponsor a picket and get up to 21 characters on the picket. In addition, Morelock said a section of pickets will be reserved for those who donate sweat equity to the project. The budget is based on $50,000 in engraved picket sales, $20,000 in grants, $100,000 in corporate sponsorships, $175,000 in corporate sponsors/partners and $30,000 in grassroots fundraising events. If fundraising exceeds the goal, the extra money will be used to add more accessibility and components to the playground.

A Playground Partner, for a donation oft $60,000, will be included in the playground’s name. Other levels are Surface Sponsor at $50,000, Platinum Sponsor at $35,000 or more, Gold Sponsor at $20,000 or more, Silver Sponsor at $10,000 or more, Bronze Sponsor at $5,000 or more and Cooper Sponsor at $2,500 or more.

Hobbs said the surface planned for the playground is a poured rubber, which she said is very level and would make the playground accessible for those in wheelchairs or with limited mobility. An option is to make pathways out of the poured rubber to save money, she said. A playground she visited in Cookeville, called Heart of the City Park, uses the poured rubber.

Morelock said another feature will be outdoor classrooms, gazebo-like structures that would facilitate outdoor learning.

Although they open to funding from the school system and the city, Morelock and Hobbs said the committee is not counting on such support. The city’s 100th anniversary is in 2017, and a $1.2 million public fundraising campaign for Centennial Park downtown is underway.

Morelock noted that some have suggested the Johnson project be delayed a year, but he and Hobbs said The Castle committee believes the playground project needs to go forward based on the age and condition of the current playground. Robinson MIddle School also is seeking grants for a special needs playground costing more than $100,000 and catering specifically to middle school special needs students.

The Castle plan is for demolition to start in late September and the build to be Oct. 18-23. Another small playground at the school will remain available for student use during construction, Morelock said.

Morelock said a “no go” date will be set if the project is to be delayed to 2017. Otherwise, he said local churches have agreed to help with the demolition by taking some of the playground equipment which is still usable. However, Morelock said those details are still being worked out and that the churches likely cannot use all the equipment, so other churches and community groups can request part of the old equipment.

A time capsule buried under the spiral slide when the playground was built in 1990 will be opened and viewed during the grand opening and dedication of the new playground. That time capsule and a new one will be added to be opened in 2066, Morelock said.

For more information about the project, to contribute money or in-kind donations or to check on the availability of existing playground equipment not already earmarked, contact Hobbs at (423) 817-5537 or [email protected] or Morelock at (423) 647-6878 or [email protected] More information about the project also is available at www.castleofkingsport.com, which Cumberland Marketing created for the project along with a logo.