Tri-Citians build Playground of Dreams in Kennewick on September 19, 1999.

  • By Elizabeth Gibson
  • Posted 1/04/2006
  • Essay 7544
See Additional Media

On September 19, 1999, volunteer Tri-Citians complete construction of the Playground of Dreams on a quarter-acre near the Family Fishing Pond at the east end of Columbia Park in Kennewick. Adults and children complete construction in just five days. An arsonist will destroy the structure on November 29, 2003, but citizens will come together again and rebuilt it.

For the Children

In 1998, organizer Randy Mendenhall approached the Kennewick City Council about building the playground. He headed up the effort because there were no large playgrounds in the Tri-Cities. Yakima and Hermiston, Oregon, both had similar playgrounds. Leathers and Associates of New York designed the new playground with ideas from local children. The firm had built 1,200 playgrounds in 26 years.

The City of Kennewick approved the project and donated the land to be used. To pay for the playground, about $250,000 need to be raised. Mendenhall formed a team that included co-chair Susan Schwartz; Cory McDaniel, volunteer coordinator; and O. J. Lamont, publicity chair.

Almost half the needed amount was collected from the three primary corporate sponsors, Bechtel Hanford, KNDU-TV NBC 25, and Tri-Cities Radio, and secondary sponsors Lamb-Weston, Columbia Center Rotary, and The Home Depot. That left about $150,000 still needed for playground construction and equipment maintenance.

A Community of Effort

Residents and businesses contributed in many ways. Sterlings Savings Bank established a special account for cash contributions. Organizers collected $30 each for 1,156 special fence pickets engraved with the donor’s name to be erected around the playground. Atomic Screen Printing designed commemorative tee shirts for the project and sold them for $10 each. Schools conducted penny drives throughout May 1999, collecting about $6,000.

The project could not happen without donated labor. Volunteers signed up during the Benton-Franklin County Fair in August. Organizers established a website for those who wanted to give of their labor or contribute cash. Only about 400 volunteers pre-registered, which worried organizers who figured at least 2,800 volunteers would be needed. However, they had nothing to worry about. On the designated weekend, hundreds of walk-ins showed up to help.

Building the Playground of Dreams

The project started on the weekend of September 11 and 12, 1999. The building site needed to be cleared and leveled before construction could begin. The Benton County P.U.D. drilled holes for posts and volunteers cut the posts and secured them to the ground. 

Workers began showing up on the morning of Wednesday, September 15. Crews started about 7:30 a.m. each day and ended about 8:30 p.m. Michael Cohen, from Leathers, directed the construction.

About 1,500 volunteers showed up on the first day and during the five days, some 6,000 people volunteered. Several church youth groups and Boy Scout troops pitched in. Local artists, painters, and woodworkers donated their time. Several hundred Hanford employees joined the team. Volunteers filled fence post holes with cement, finished swing sets, built platforms, and stained fence pickets. Even children under 10 were put to work sanding planks or soaping screws. Children 10 to 13 years old sanded slats. Teens helped with construction. Only those over 18 were allowed to use power tools.

For Young Pirates and Young Farmers

The playground consisted of a wooden castle-like structure with painted shapes such as a house, farm, construction zone, pirate ship, and spaceship. As promised, Leathers incorporated local motifs into the design, which included replicas of the Columbia River cable bridge, blue bridge, a hydroplane, and a Lampson crane. The structure had swings, monkey bars, a tire tunnel, chimes, a rope wall, slides, an obstacle course, a maze, bridges, a tunnel, and ramps. Children could also play a unique three-dimensional tic-tac-toe game or play in the sand with oversized sand shovels. Pea gravel covered by landscape fabric topped with wood chips formed a soft two-foot thick play surface for children.

A sandbox and tire swings surrounded the main structure. Wooden cutouts shaped like telephones lined one side. “Answering” the phone carried a child’s voice through a hidden pipe to the other phones. Volunteers erected the personalized fence pickets around the entire playground. The main structure holds about 300 children and is handicapped accessible.

No serious injuries occurred during construction, and workers finished the playground in time to open at noon on Sunday, September 19. At 5:00 p.m., organizers held an informal ceremony to officially open the park.

Parents were excited about the playground because it could entertain their children for longer periods of time. The playground has more activities in a compact space to absorb a child’s attention.

The Fire

On November 29, 2003, at about 4:50 in the morning, Kennewick police received several calls about a fire in Columbia Park. When they arrived they found the playground totally engulfed in flames. Police estimated 50 to 70 percent of the playground was destroyed. Arsonists had poured gasoline or some other accelerant on the wood before setting it afire. The Kennewick Fire Department extinguished the main fire in about a half hour. No one was arrested for the crime.

Tri-Citians were shocked, but almost immediately people signed up to get organized to rebuild the playground. Russ Burtner, head of the Kennewick Parks department, dug out the plans from the original park. A week later, the city hired a contractor to demolish the site and clean up the debris. Hermiston’s Funland Park, a similar park, also was the victim of arson in 2001 and that park was also rebuilt.

Rebuilding the Playground of Dreams

As before, Tri-Citians stepped up to the challenge of rebuilding the Playground of Dreams. Burtner estimated the cost at $258,560. After a $100,000 deductible, the city’s insurance company paid $158,560. Actual cost ended up at $187,347, leaving a relatively small amount needed to be raised from charitable contributions.

Businesses and individuals contributed financially. The City of Richland donated $5,000. Marcus Whitman Elementary School donated $1,071.89, in an effort organized by third grade students Michael Hare, Chloe Eskeli, Kathrina Phimviengkham, and Maia Dehler. First Night Tri-Cities, an alcohol-free New Year’s Eve event, set up an account for those wishing to donate to the rebuild effort, dubbed the Phoenix Project. Other donors included Clear Channel Radio, Tyson Fresh Meats, Red Lion Motels, Bechtel Hanford, Bush Motor Sales/Richland Suzuki, Banner Bank, Fluor Hanford, and Money Tree.

Schools and businesses held spaghetti feeds, silent auctions, and other activities to raise money. Jackson's Sports Bar, Richland Riverside Rotary, and Vista Elementary also contributed.

Employees from Wal-Mart, Red Lion, Washington Mutual, Bechtel, Robert Young & Associates, and many others donated their time. Students from area schools, city council members, port district officials, park advisory board members, union craft workers, and many others pitched in.

Teams of Volunteers

Construction took place April 21 to 24, 2004. About 2,000 volunteers turned out, some of whom worked more than one shift. Mike Thomas, from Leathers and Associates, organized the volunteers into teams with captains. Thomas and Bill Hugill, also of Leathers, made sure they followed the original design as much as possible. Bouncy mats were added under the swings.

James Ortega of Sandstone Café in Kennewick and Chris Jorgenson, manager of Kennewick Safeway, organized meals for the volunteers. They signed up many local businesses to contribute food for the volunteers including Subway, Starbucks, Burger King, Casa Chapala, Fred Meyer, Pepsi, Sandstone Café, Safeway, Wal-Mart, Darigold, Ray’s Meats in Yakima, Frito Lay, Welch’s, Daylight Donuts, Mrs. Bee’s, Cookies by Design, URM Cash and Carry, Old Country Buffet, American Legion, and Arctic-Land Ice. Lions Club members donated their time to serve the meals from their trailer, and the Kennewick Restaurant Association cooked two barbecue dinners.

The job progressed so smoothly that work scheduled to last through Sunday was actually finished by Saturday night. The playground remained closed for two more weeks in order to make a few upgrades needed for handicapped children.

The park reopened on May 8. That morning, children were allowed to race through paper chains that had been strung across the entrance. Hours later, many children were still playing.

Ultimately, businesses contributed about $25,000 in food and $70,000 in materials. Volunteers contributed almost 8,000 hours of free labor. People were so generous that there was $58,000 leftover. A citizens committee will decide how to spend the money. Some of it will be used to pay for security. They will also erect a brass plaque to recognize the volunteer effort. The Playground of Dreams rose from the ashes, thanks to the efforts of the citizens of the Tri-Cities.


“Playground of Dreams Needs Your Help,” Hanford Reach (newsletter published by the U.S. Department of Energy, Richland, for Hanford employees), July 12, 1999, pp. 7-9; Melissa O’Neil, “Dream Playground Needs Help Awakening to Reality, Tri-City Herald (Kennewick), August 9, 1999, p. A-1; “Volunteers Still Needed for Project,” Hanford Reach, September 7, 1999, p. 4; Melissa O’Neil, “Dream Playground Taking Shape,” Tri-City Herald (Kennewick), September 16, 1999, p. 1; Melissa O’Neil, “Volunteers Pound Away on ‘Playground,’” Ibid., September 17, 1999, p. A-5; Melissa O’Neil, “Volunteers Turning Out in Droves,” Ibid., September 18, 1999, p. A-3; Kristin Alexander, “Columbia Park Playground Emerges as Reality,” Ibid., September 20, 1999, p. A-1; "Playground Torched,” Ibid., November 30, 2003, p. A-1; Tri-Cities Crimestoppers bulletin, December 1, 2003; Kennewick Police Briefing, December 1, 2003; Kennewick Police Briefing, December 8, 2003; Volunteer Army Flocks to Help Rebuild Playground of Dreams,” Tri-City Herald (Kennewick), April 22, 2004, p. B-1; “Merchants Fill Plates to Help with Playground,” Ibid., April 23, 2004, p. B-1; Richland School District News, April 23, 2004; “What’s Happening in Kennewick,” Kennewick City Council Newsletter, April 30, 2004; Cara Fitzpatrick, “Park Ceremonies Remember Fallen, Celebrate Rebuilding,” Tri-City Herald (Kennewick), May 9, 2004, p. B-1; Nathan Isaacs, “Playground Becomes Vision of Success,” Ibid., November 28, 2004, p. B-1.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You