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A year full of play and pride: Willmar's Destination Playground exceeds goals

Erica Dischino / Tribune Children play at the Destination Playground July 16 at Robbins Island Regional Park in Willmar. 1 / 5
Erica Dischino / Tribune Children play on the monkey bars July 16 at the Destination Playground at Robbins Island Regional Park in Willmar. 2 / 5
Erica Dischino / Tribune Soren Larson, 1, tries to stand up after going down the slide July 16 at the Destination Playground at Robbins Island Regional Park. 3 / 5
Erica Dischino / Tribune Marek Dahl, 5, smiles while in the swing July 16 at the Destination Playground at Robbins Island Regional Park. 4 / 5
Erica Dischino / Tribune Jade Espinoza, 10, plays music at one of the play structures at the Destination Playground.5 / 5

WILLMAR — It has been just over a year since the Willmar Destination Playground at Robbins Island Regional Park opened to the cheers of delight from adults and children alike. It is as popular today as it was on its grand opening weekend, with people coming from near and far to spend a few hours at the fully accessible, 19,000-square-foot playground.

"The use is probably more than I anticipated," Gary Mazner, Willmar Public Works superintendent said. "You see bus loads out there all the time."

Even a year later little things are still being done to make the playground an even better place. Last fall patio and picnic tables were installed and recently solar landscape lighting was installed, adding another visual treat at dusk.

"It looks amazing," said Sara Carlson, fundraising co-captain and executive director of the Willmar Area Community Foundation.

There will also soon be a way for those who purchased personalized fence pickets to find them more easily in the giant playground. With assistance from Bolton & Menk the playground will have a GIS app, where each picket has been digitally mapped. People will be able to pull up a map of the playground and be pointed in the direction of their picket.

"We are the first playground we know of to have that in place," Carlson said.

While the playground started as a community-lead and financed project, it is owned and maintained by the city of Willmar. Manzer's team at Willmar Public Works takes great care of the park, keeping it clean and welcoming.

"We are out there pretty much everyday," Manzer said. "Maintenance wise it has been really good."

There has been a learning curve involved. The water misters ended up discoloring some of the personalized pickets, requiring their replacement and moving them to another part of the park. Trash and recycling disposal is a never-ending effort, and then there are the bathrooms.

"Our bathroom facilities are not equipped for the use out there," Manzer said. While extra porta-potties have been brought out, both Manzer and Carlson hope a new bathroom facility will be built as part of the ongoing improvements at Robbins Island.

The playground has added some extra responsibilities and time to the Public Works' list of jobs, but it hasn't been a drain on resources, Manzer said. The public itself has played a big role in helping keep the playground in good condition.

"People think the world of it," Mazner said. "People have been respectful of it. I think people police each other on it."

It has been the community from the beginning that made the playground possible.

"It took 3,000-plus people to pull this together," Dave Baker said, adding the project would not have been possible without the leadership team, who worked tirelessly to make the project a success. "Leadership matters big time."

From council support and approval following Baker's first presentations on the project in early 2016, came a year-long community project with children helping to design the playground to adults actually building it, alongside playground contractor Leathers & Associates.

"It is a project so many people are so proud of. It is part of people's legacy, memories," Carlson said.

It also took close to $1 million to build it. All of that money came from private funding, grants and in-kind donations for businesses like Jennie-O Turkey Store, charitable organizations like Otto Bremer Trust and even the Super Bowl Legacy Fund and Blue Cross Blue Shield. Money also came from individuals and families through the sale of pickets, fundraisers like Rockin' Robbins and donations big and small.

"I always knew it was going to be something special," Baker said.

Over the last 12 months the playground committee has been sharing its experiences and knowledge with other communities and organizations interested in doing a similar project.

"It is the Willmar way," to help others, Carlson said. "We've kept a pay-it-forward model in mind."

Besides becoming a fun place to spend an afternoon, the playground has also become the shining example of what is possible when a community comes together and works together. It was the playground's success that moved Mayor Marv Calvin to establish the Mayor's Robbins Island Task Force, which helped create the Robbins Island Master Plan, full of improvements and additions to go along side the playground.

"The playground was part of the first renaissance wave," Carlson said. "The community is waiting for the big thing."

While it might be several years before all those plans are realized, it is helping by keeping the playground, and Robbins Island, in the community conscience.

"The playground is a testimonial to what communities can do. The community willed it into being," Carlson said. "It taught the leadership team that people in this area are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and get dirty."

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