“It’s (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant,” Parks and County Grounds Deputy Director Carmine DeMilio said. “That means there’s not just one feature. All features on this playground apparatus are going to have accessibility, even our zip line.”
The playground is a public-private partnership between Manatee County and the Bradenton Kiwanis Club. It’s designed for children ages 2-12.
The club donated $758,000 to the county in May 2023 to cover equipment and construction costs. The county provided the land and, in December, approved plans and $578,000 to expand the playground to include a splash pad. Construction on the splash pad is expected to begin by the summer.
“Whenever you have a catalyst investment from the private sector, it often galvanizes support,” Commissioner James Satcher said. “This was a great opportunity.”
It also fell in line with what Kiwanis was looking for in a project, as 2023 marked the 100th anniversary of the Bradenton chapter. Members wanted to have a legacy project.
Board member Mike Bear said once club members decided on a playground, they decided to spend the extra money to build it ADA-accessible to fill a need in the community. Manatee County doesn’t currently have an ADA-accessible playground.
The equipment cost $435,402. Mike Gagnon, a recreational consultant with Advanced Recreational Concepts, the company installing the playground, said the cost for the equipment is the same as it would be for any other playground because all commercial equipment is made to be ADA-compliant now.
The difference is that this playground is not just ADA-compliant, it’s ADA-accessible. Gagnon said accessibility costs between 40%-50% more because of the additional wheelchair ramps and accommodations.
The equipment also requires more space because ramps can only elevate by 12 inches every 12 feet. The playground at Bennett Park will span 13,400 square feet, including a climbing wall and a merry-go-round. The ground will be covered in astroturf with a hopscotch area.
The equipment wasn’t unpacked yet, but it was delivered by the Jan. 30 groundbreaking ceremony. It will take at least a month to assemble, and installing the turf will take another month. Providing for delays, such as missing parts and rainy weather, the plan is to be open by early May.
Gagnon said ADA-compliant merry-go-rounds are a fairly new concept that won’t be found at many other parks. The merry-go-rounds are ground-level so wheelchairs can roll on and off easily.
Once built, it will accommodate between six to eight riders at a time. The park, as a whole, will accommodate over 400 children.
DeMilio said the playground will be inclusive beyond physical disabilities. It will include a sensory area to engage children with autism, and braille is being used so children who are visually impaired can explore confidently.
After several locations were considered, Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge said Tom Bennett Park was chosen because the intersection of State Road 64 and Interstate 75 is the population center of Manatee County.
“This isn’t something that we could envision ourselves building in every corner of the county,” he said. “So if you’re going to have one big one, you want to put it in a place where it can be accessible to everyone in the county because it’s a playground where literally anyone can bring their entire family.”
Former Kiwanis President Neil Unruh said members want to see the playground become a regional attraction and believe once the splash pad is added, it will become a destination playground.
Joseph Tantillo lives in Venice in Sarasota County and said he is willing to travel for such a playground, even though none of his children require ADA accessibility. After seeing the playground on the news, he reached out to Manatee County staff via the 311 non-emergency line to thank staff members for their efforts. He was touched by what he saw Jan. 30.
“I thought it was an idea whose time had come,” he said.
Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.