Emily Douglas Park: A big dream in neighbors' small park

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Hand Middle School Principal Marisa Vickers and parent-community liason B-Linda Rogers discuss the new amphitheater at Emily Douglas Park. Adam Beam/The State

In 2006, when Columbia City Council was wrangling with a smoking ban, a homeless shelter and the departure of the state's only Fortune 500 company, no one was concerned about a proposed amphitheater at tiny Emily Douglas Park.

Friends and parents of Hand Middle School students, along with a cluster of six Shandon neighborhood churches, knew that.

So they didn't ask for money.

They asked for time.

Over two years - after cold calls, silent auctions and announcements in church bulletins - the Hand Middle School Educational Foundation had raised $75,000 for the $175,000 project.

City Council pitched in the remaining $100,000, and today, the amphitheater will have its grand opening - a testament to what it takes to push through a neighborhood project in the crowded, budget-cutting environment of City Hall.

"We want a lot of things, and we need a lot of things, but government is not able to do everything," said Allison Baker, assistant city manger for public services.

"When we create partnerships, the communities have more of an ownership in what takes place, and we're able to stretch the tax dollars a lot further."

The city's parks department has relied on donations for some time. On Oct. 8, Councilman E.W. Cromartie and his constituents raised more than $50,000 for scholarships to the Charles R. Drew Wellness Center. Since the Wellness Center opened a few years ago, Cromartie and his constituents have provided 361 scholarships.

At Hollywood Park on South Gregg Street, the Hollywood-Rose Hill Neighborhood Association passed the hat to pay for decorative plants, park benches and a brick arch.

But the amphitheater at Emily Douglas Park is one of the first large-scale parks projects to be financed in part by private funds.

"It is a community park," said Terry Sharpe, co-chairman of the Hand Middle School Educational Foundation. "It's not like Finlay Park, where everyone around the city uses it. It makes more sense that the community takes ownership and not necessarily having to have everybody who lives out in Northeast Columbia have to share in the cost of it."

The city still owns the park, which sits diagonally across from the school on Wheat Street, and it will still provide the maintenance and control the scheduling.

But city officials signed a memorandum of agreement with the foundation giving Hand Middle priority use of the park during the school day.

"I've never heard of anything like this happening before," Hand Principal Marisa Vickers said as she walked along the sidewalk in front of the school Wednesday during a fire drill, picking up stray sandwich bags and candy bar wrappers. "It's powerful."

Hand has more than 900 students, and in 2008 it rededicated the school after $381 million in bonds issued by the school district helped finance a new lecture hall, media center, administration and guidance areas, classrooms, and physical education and kitchen space.

But its smaller projects, like a track and athletic field and the amphitheater, would have never been built without the support of community organizations.

"The whole community has taken ownership of Hand Middle School," said the Rev. Cole Weathers, associate pastor of Bethel AME Church on Woodrow Street. "People just consider Hand their school."

City officials hope the partnership with Hand will be used as a model for the city's more than 100 other neighborhood associations that have their own wish lists.

The city has had to cut its budget this year after several years of disastrous accounting practices that lost millions of taxpayer dollars.

But by pulling together the community's resources - with a little help from city tax dollars - projects that might have been ignored can get accomplished.

Hand Middle has all of the ingredients to make that happen. The school is supported by the Shandon Cluster of Churches, a group of six churches that send a portion of their budgets to the school each year to pay for school supplies for children in need.

The Shandon Neighborhood Council's annual tour of homes raised more than $7,100, which it donated to area schools, including Hand.

But it's the Hand Middle School Foundation that rounds up these organizations for bigger projects that don't meet Richland 1's priority list.

Its first project was the $120,000 track and athletic field, according to Lynn Stokes-Murray, co-chairwoman of the foundation.

For the amphitheater, the foundation held Mardi Gras fundraisers and used its connections to large corporations - including BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina - for donations.

"This is a compelling example of a partnership that is going to strengthen our schools, our neighborhoods and our city," said City Councilwoman Belinda Gergel, whose district includes Hand Middle School.

Next up for the foundation: raising money to build an awning from the cafeteria to the bus stop so students don't have to wait in the rain.