Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Jan-Feb 2020 issue

Focus on Small Cities: Communitywide Effort Brings New Playground

By Renee McGivern

The children in the City of Bowlus were thrilled in June 2019 when they were able to hop onto a new playground. The previous playground in this Morrison County community had become a run-down safety hazard that most families chose not to use.

“It was a residential-style, three-piece wood playset that had nails and screws sticking out of it and just sat on grass,” says City Treasurer Molly Sobania, who led the project to build the new playground.

Sobania and her family had moved to Bowlus in 2016, and it didn’t take long for her to fall in love with the place. Her husband Scott had grown up in the community of 288 people.

“What I love most is that it is extremely small, everybody knows everybody, and people are very kind,” says Sobania. “I like to be involved in whatever town I’m living in.”

Taking the lead

Sobania started in her role as city treasurer in January 2019, and at her first City Council meeting in February, she volunteered to lead the playground project.

“A couple of years ago, our first responders had started the ball rolling for a playground by raising several thousand dollars,” Sobania says. “But at the meeting, people were saying that someone needed to organize the project, so I said I’d do it.”

Initially, Sobania researched playground equipment to get an idea of what the equipment might cost. She spoke with Stacy Strand at Flagship Recreation, who described projects where residents and employees of local businesses built their new playgrounds themselves.

“If local people do what we call a ‘community build,’ they can save on installation costs, which are about 20% of the overall project,” says Strand. “And they get more playground for their money. It’s a way to have fun and get everyone involved and, in some cases, hire local businesses to do the work.”

Planning and fundraising

To find out what residents wanted in a playground, Sobania and volunteers interviewed families. They soon had a clear idea of the specific equipment children would like.

“We chose a color scheme that matched our Bowlus Community Center,” she says. “And we left the design open-ended” in case children with disabilities move into town.

Next, Sobania jumped into organizing a three-day garage and bake sale, which generated $4,000 and a lot of enthusiasm for the playground.

“People stopped by wondering how much had been raised, or they’d ask me how they could help,” she says. “I was able to delegate a lot of work to people.”

Residents, businesses, and others also donated money. Within a matter of weeks, and with a $27,000 commitment from the city, the community raised $69,000.

“Every step of this was a communitywide effort,” Sobania says.

Lessons learned

Doug Prokott, a local general contractor and lifelong resident of the city, donated his time and that of his employees to the build. The local excavator, concrete, and lumber companies also contributed time, supplies, equipment, and expertise.

“Building a playground is really technical and requires site plans, plot maps, setbacks, and proper permits with the city,” says Prokott. They also had to get approval from the county since the playground included some county land. Prokott shares these lessons learned from the Bowlus community build playground project:

  • Know how much the equipment will cost before you start fundraising.
  • Plan to work on the playground during normal business hours.
  • Make sure the plans and permits are thorough and approved by the city and other entities if needed.
  • Anticipate the tasks that volunteers can do and have at least one person on-site who can provide direction.
  • Supply food and beverages for people working at the site.

Point of pride

Now, the 80-by-60-foot playground is an area everyone enjoys. It has a zip line, slides, swings, climbing structures, and other features.

“We had such a great turnout for assembling the playground, and everybody worked really well together,” Sobania says. “We had a blast.”

There’s a long-lasting, positive impact on a community that comes together on behalf of its children.

“Building a playground is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in a small community that really makes everyone proud,” Prokott says. “So many people are taking care of it now as though it’s their own.”

Renee McGivern is a freelance writer.

Read the Jan-Feb 2020 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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