The outdated Melissa Park in Lake Helen is set to get a renovation, after an odd series of events led to a $25,000 fund for the project.
In late January, Travis Martin, the owner of Trayton Homes, discovered a house his company was building at 380 W. Ohio Ave. was about 50 feet into city-owned property adjacent to Melissa Park, at 450 W. Ohio Ave. in Lake Helen.
To make up for the “slight oops,” as Martin described the error to city commissioners, Martin offered the city a deal, which, after some negotiations, was accepted: Martin would buy the land in question (about one-third of an acre, or roughly 9,000 square feet) from the city for $25,000, with proceeds for the sale earmarked for Melissa Park improvements.
In addition, Martin also offered to donate the back portions of lots he owns on Ohio Avenue, which would allow for an old railroad track that runs behind the park to one day be used as a walking trail. That donation adds more than 16,000 square feet to the city-owned property that is adjacent to the park.
Eventually, the plan would be for the city to change the land-use designations for the lots to fold them into the park, greatly expanding its size. That city-owned land surrounding the park was given to them by the county, who turned over the property after it failed to sell at a tax auction in 2016.
“It’s a no-brainer kind of a deal,” Commissioner Vernon Burton told The Beacon.
Burton is currently in his last year of a 12-year span as commissioner of Zone 2, which includes the historically African American district of Lake Helen. He explained the origins of the park.
“African Americans weren’t allowed at Blake Park,” Burton said, referring to the large 5-acre park in the heart of town that hosts many of the city’s events. “Therefore, the African American community needed a gathering place of their own.”
Melissa Park was named for Melissa Cooper, who was a community advocate for the Black community in Lake Helen until her death in 1963.
“She always did whatever she could do to help,” community leader and retired teacher Alzada Fowler said of Cooper.
After Lake Helen Elementary, a school for minority children, was constructed in 1917, Cooper and others saw the need for a place for children to play after school. She and another community member helped secure the land on Ohio Avenue, about a half-mile from the school (now Shoestring Theatre), residents said.
Improvements have been slow in the making; for many years, the park had no bathrooms.
Burton himself bid on properties surrounding the park and helped spearhead the demolishing of three abandoned and derelict buildings on the now-vacant city land.
That makes a previous opposition to the $25,000 sale to Martin by some members of the community particularly unpalatable to Burton. Originally, Martin had offered to move the house, and some in the community believed he should stick with that plan, or pay a higher price ($65,000) for the land. In June, about six residents wrote in objecting to the deal, and two commissioners voted against it.
“It’s our neighborhood, but now you have good white folks making sure we don’t get taken advantage of,” Burton said in an interview after that meeting. “Where the hell were these people when they didn’t have a bathroom? When the roof was falling off the building?”
Burton praised Public Works director Rick Mullen, who supported Burton in his efforts to address the state of the park over the past decade and who has undertaken several improvements, including fixing the pavilion and swingsets, bringing the bathrooms up to code, and installing air conditioning.
But the playground equipment is long outdated.
“I played on this equipment when I was a child, and I am 57 years old,” resident Sharon Johnson told the Parks and Playgrounds Review Committee Sept. 28. “We moved here when I was 5, and that’s the equipment I played on.”
The nature of construction means that the $25,000 the Parks and Playgrounds Review Committee has to spend will only go so far — when park benches cost roughly $3,000, and playground mulch nearly $16,000, the committee is relying on in-kind donations, possible sponsorship opportunities, and a more than $15,000 contribution from the city to round out their plan to install a new play set, five new pieces of play equipment, and new benches.
Most of the improvements will be installed by staff and volunteers, and the committee also hopes to secure a donation of concrete to fix the now-dilapidated basketball court.
The committee, who oversaw improvements to Blake Park last year, will present their plan for improving the park to the City Commission on Oct. 8 for the second time.
A previous presentation to the commission in August ended with the commission directing the committee to solicit more community input, and to expand their overall plan. The new plan includes some modifications based on that community input.
Burton also plans to make a motion to approve a resolution naming the pavilion after Henry Whites, a former city commissioner who also was principal of Lake Helen Elementary before integration closed the school.
Burton’s retirement party, scheduled for Nov. 7 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., will be held at Melissa Park.
Water-bottle filling station — $2,500
Play structure — $11,592
Rubber playground mulch — $16,000
Paint — $400
Basketball court renovation — $650
Accessory items (small play pieces, benches, etc.) — $7,000
Fencing — Donated by Sterling Enterprises
Field fencing to bottom of fence — $200
Hurricane spinner — $2,500
Approximate total cost: $40,842
Money available: $25,000
Approximate funds requested: $15,842