One park can make a big difference in a neighborhood.
Just ask the residents of Sylvania Heights, a small community just north of Lovejoy Road in Fort Walton Beach with about 1,000 residents.
Thursday night, nearly 50 people in the community gathered inside A New Hope Church for a town hall with Okaloosa County Commissioner Trey Goodwin about the loss of the community’s only park.
A little history — the Sylvania Heights Playground sits on a half-acre parcel on Shirley Drive in the predominately black, low-income neighborhood. In 2000, Okaloosa County began a 20-year lease with Abundant Life Church. And in 2008, Community Housing of Okaloosa County LLC owned the land. The county lease expires on Jan. 31, 2020.
On May 8, the nonprofit Opportunity Place received a quit claim deed becoming owner of the site.
With the park in disrepair the nonprofit closed it to avoid liability issues — the playground equipment is cracked and worn, the picnic tables are showing rust, and the gate door has been replaced with a piece of wood.
The county had been responsible for the park’s maintenance, but it fell short, residents say.
“This whole meeting is déjà vu,” said Barry Gray, a community activist and member of the Greater Sylvania Heights Front Porch community improvement organization. “Two to three years ago, I sent pictures I took of the damage.”
At the town hall meeting Commissioner Goodwin presented three possible options for the Sylvania Heights Park: renovate the existing park once a long-term lease is signed, relocate the park two blocks away to 310 Elaine Avenue, or look for other property alternatives.
But residents at the town hall meeting made it clear — the only option is to keep the park where it is.
“We know we have issues in Sylvania Heights,” said Cedric C.C. Fearson. “(The current location) is a safe haven. Ain’t nobody shooting up, ain’t nobody selling crack. It’s a safe spot. You don’t want a 4, 5, 6-year-old walking down Lovejoy to go to the park. The only thing that will satisfy us is to keep it where it is.”
The county has $50,000 set aside for park improvements, but Goodwin said he was cautious to spend the money without a permanent location. What he could promise now is that the county would begin making improvements next Wednesday and have the park open by mid-July.
“It won’t be brand-new, but it will be safe,” he said.
Opportunity Place Executive Director, Debra McDaniel, said the nonprofit is willing to work with the community to extend the lease to 2021 to “allow time to get together.”
Debra Riley-Broadnax grew up in W.E. Combs area of Sylvania Heights and said the neighborhood has been underserved for “several decades.” The park is just the latest issue.
“We’ve have social and economic issues,” she said at the meeting. “I don’t want broken promises. This community is very vulnerable. We’re tired of being tired of asking for help.”