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Updated: Wednesday, 06 Mar 2013, 5:44 PM EST
Published : Tuesday, 05 Mar 2013, 7:43 PM EST
COLUMBUS, Ind. (AP) - Tony Stewart's familiar red-and-black racing colors and No. 14 soon will decorate a new playground at Mead Village, the neighborhood where the NASCAR driver grew up.
The racing-themed fixtures are part of Race to Play, a $500,000-plus playground improvement initiative at four Columbus parks. In addition to Mead Village, playground equipment will be installed at Pence Street, Morningside and Ninth Street parks.
Stewart and his younger sister, Natalie, spent much of their summers as youth playing at the Mead Village park off Locust Drive, said their mother, Pam Boas. She told The Republic the Columbus Parks and Recreation facilities were a big part of her children's lives and Stewart is glad to be able to direct financial resources to help improve the four city playgrounds.
According to preliminary artist renderings, the playground could have climbing rings, slides, gangplanks, swings and an awning with Stewart's "14" on the side. However, details have yet to be settled upon.
"We know the advantage and benefit of having these parks and what it can do for these kids in the summer when they don't have a place to go and things to do," Boas said. "Get these kids out of their homes and off their video games and the texting, all the stuff they do which is sedentary."
Boas said the Stewart Foundation's goal is "to make sure that kids of all physical abilities have a good, safe place to play."
The Stewart playground equipment will be custom-built and is designed to be all-inclusive for children with disabilities, said April Williams, project and resource development director for the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department. The playground will be resurfaced with a soft-tile material that makes it easier for wheelchairs to operate on, Williams said.
The Tony Stewart playground will be the second city playground to be all-inclusive, Williams said. While all the city facilities meet the minimum standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the only other playground to meet the higher standard is Freedom Field behind Parkside Elementary School.
Nearly 17 percent of Bartholomew County's population have disabilities, according to the Indiana Governor's Council for People with Disabilities.
The Tony Stewart Foundation and the Carter Oosterhouse Foundation were the first major sponsors of Race to Play, Williams said. Their involvement has drawn other celebrity and community interest, including Subway spokesman Jared Fogle's foundation. Williams said that, as a private organization, the Parks Foundation keeps the amounts of donations confidential.
Oosterhouse, formerly of "Trading Spaces" and current star of "Carter Can" and "Red Hot and Green" home improvement shows on HGTV, and Fogle have foundations dedicated to reducing childhood obesity, Boas said. The Stewart foundation's mission is to help make all-inclusive facilities for children.
Boas said Stewart decided to get involved because of his love for Columbus and his desire to help children. She hopes the partnership could be a prototype for other communities and downplays her son's celebrity power in his hometown.
"It is all about the kids and the health of these children," Boas said.
Boas said the family moved to Mead Village in 1969, when the would-be racer was a toddler. Stewart still owns his childhood home in the neighborhood.
Exact details of the park and playground improvements are in flux, Williams said. The parks department has been holding a series of meetings with neighbors at each of the parks to get a sense of what improvements and equipment are needed.
At a meeting last month with Mead Village residents, community members said they wanted to have the park's shelter house expanded, Williams said. A tree fell on the old shelter house during a storm, destroying it. It was replaced with a smaller shelter.
To make the shelter house happen, the parks department had planned to scale back on the size of the Tony Stewart playground. However, on Friday the city was approached by a representative of Bob Poynter Columbus, and the car dealer is interested in sponsoring the shelter-house portion of the project, Williams said. That financial support would allow the city to continue with the larger-sized Stewart playground, she said.
Residents also were concerned that the Stewart-themed playground could draw more traffic to the neighborhood, Williams said. However, one goal of improving the neighborhood parks is to increase pedestrian and bicycle traffic, she said. The parks department promised to monitor the traffic and to find ways to address it, should it become a problem, Williams said.
The existing equipment at Mead Village is about five years old and in good shape, said Katia Hatter, marketing and public relations coordinator for the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department. The Mead Village equipment will be rehabilitated and installed at Pence Street Park, she said. Other components will be added at Pence Street to make that park more accessible
to children with disabilities.
"The goal is to get all of our playgrounds so that anyone can use them, but we kind of have to phase that in over time," Hatter said.
At Ninth Street Park, the initiative will add another piece of ADA-accessible playground equipment that will help children with sensory issues, Williams said. A new playground and shelter house will be added to Morningside Park.
Williams said the goal is to make the playgrounds more inviting spaces to get children and families moving and active.
"This is a destination that is a free resource, especially in neighborhoods that are underprivileged," she said. "They can utilize their playground space to stay active."
The playground equipment at Pence Street and Morningside parks has not been replaced since 1994.
Jill Sharp, public housing manager at the city-owned Pence Place apartments, said the playground equipment there has been heavily used. Residents will be glad to have newer equipment, and it will help build pride in the neighborhood, she said.
Last week, the parks department met with residents near Ninth Street Park. Meetings with residents near Morningside and Pence Place parks are scheduled over the next two weeks.
"A component of Race to Play is that we have teamed up with the mayor, the police department and Healthy Communities so that the residents know that they are a resource," Williams said.
Columbus Regional Health Foundation is one of the sponsors of the Race to Play program. Beth Morris, director of community health partnerships for Columbus Regional Health, said the hospital partners with the city on many such initiatives to make sure kids have a safe place to play.
"We know that it is not just letting off steam and being active, it really influences health," Morris said last week at a meeting on the Ninth Street Park.
A sedentary lifestyle can contribute to obesity and other health problems, according to health officials. According to data from a 2012 study by Columbus Regional Hospital, about 63 percent of Bartholomew County residents are either overweight or obese, compared with Indiana's rate of 66 percent and the U.S. rate of 67 percent. The obesity rate for Bartholomew County is 27 percent compared to 31 percent for Indiana and 28 percent nationwide.
"We have kids in school now who have diabetes, who have heart disease, and that is not what anybody wants," Morris said.
Williams said the parks department is still seeking $25,000 in sponsorships to finish paying for the improvements to the four parks. The foundation's goal for local donors was $200,000, and about $175,000 has been raised, she said. Any excess funds will be used to install the soft-tile surface at the other three playgrounds.
Williams said there is a mid-March deadline to order the playground equipment for the parks. Work on the playgrounds is expected to begin in April. Ribbon cuttings are scheduled for May 8, and a $5,000 per ticket, invitation-only reception hosted by Stewart, Oosterhouse and Fogle is being planned.