More than half-million dollars and nearly a year later, the city of Conway recently reopened two playgrounds, complete with brand-new equipment, softer landings and shade structures.
Renovations to Gatlin Park, located at 2325 Tyler St., and Laurel Park, located at 2310 Robinson Ave., began in March with the intent to reopen the parks before the summer, but delays in equipment orders due to the covid-19 pandemic and the removal of dead trees kept pushing the completion date out further.
"It took us a little longer to get the job done, but parents have expressed their gratitude for our investments in Laurel Park and Gatlin Park," Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry said. "The new playground gives kids a safer and more accessible place to play. The diverse play equipment challenges their motor skills in ways our older park equipment could not."
Both parks have been flooded with parents and their children since the projects were completed.
The revamped parks also include play equipment for children with impairments and multiple access points to everything the parks have to offer.
"That was the most exciting thing for me to see," said Courtney Reynolds, a Conway mother. "There are several things that are ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant in the new design. I love when everyone can play."
Bobby Kelly, Conway city spokesman, said he is particularly proud of the wheelchair-ready merry-go-rounds at both parks.
"The parks were due for an accessibility upgrade," Kelly said, crediting parks and recreation director Steve Ibbotson for taking the lead in the upgrades. "He's always looking to make our parks better."
Mandi Harris, a Conway mother, said she's planning to visit the new parks soon.
"My daughter has special needs so I'm excited to see the improvements," she said.
Before the upgrades, the equipment was aging and it was hard to find parts because the manufacturer was no longer in business, Kelly said.
"What we have now is a more modern take on what was there," he said.
Kelly's favorite part of the upgrades is the soft rubber playing surface, he said. His daughter took a spill recently and landed on her head. The cushioned landing prevented an injury and play time continued without incident.
Tracey Anderson said Laurel Park is "truly amazing."
"The new park equipment is beautiful. My kids love how squishy the ground is now," she said. "They love all the beautiful colors it now is. It's meant for all ages and has a small workout area. What I love the most is the shade covers it has over it now for hot summer days."
The improvements for Laurel Park totaled $318,229, while Gatlin Park upgrades totaled $235,189, according to city documents.
The city chose Little Tikes playground equipment in bright colors like tropical yellow, chartreuse, red and blue. As far as playground equipment goes, it was the ball maze and shark fin challenge installation that was the priciest, at $14,436, quickly followed by the tropical yellow surface spinner at $11,319, according to city invoices.
It was the Fusion playground turf, at $56,237.50 that was the costliest part of the infrastructure improvements.
Everything in the parks are connected by a new sidewalks and the older walkways to the parking lots were replaced.
"Each section is handicap accessible," Kelly said.
And adults weren't left out of the equation. The parks are equipped for a full workout including push-up and pull-up bars.
"The upgrades got these two parks in line with what you see elsewhere in the Conway park system," Kelly said.
Reynolds said her family loves the new Gatlin Park playground.
"It is awesome to see how accessible it is to all children including those with disabilities. The rubber matting under the swings and merry-go-round area give extra protection and a clean place to play," she said. "There is now a miniature 'ninja warrior' style course for the older kids for a more challenging climb which is super cool. Overall, the improvement was perfectly executed."
Kelly Cates said she's visited "and loved" both parks with her three children, ages 4 and 2 years old and 8 months.
"I was able to sit on ground covering while my baby crawled around and could see my big kids without any difficulty no matter where they played," Cates said. "My 2-year-old was able to do almost everything, yet it was still fun for my 4-year-old who could just do everything faster. I'm excited for many warmer days at both these parks."
Contractors were forced to cut down a handful of dead or dying trees in the park, including a large tree in the middle of Laurel Park that provided lots of shade for generations.
"Limbs were falling off. We had no choice," Kelly said, adding that some pine trees with damaged roots also had to be removed.
Shade structures were added to the plans, which took extra time for shipping and installation, Kelly said.
There are still some benches that have yet to be installed, but are expected within the next two weeks, Kelly said.
"We have to give the fresh sod more time to settle in," he said.
Jocelyn Ryan said she loves that the Laurel Park playground is now well shaded and her children are enjoying all the new equipment.
"The only thing I feel that is missing in our beautiful parks is a fenced-in area around the younger children's play equipment," Ryan said. "I have twin toddlers and taking them to the park is stressful by myself, especially when they love running in opposite directions."
Madelaine Priest agreed. She said the Laurel Park upgrades are "fantastic" and her 3-year-old loved the greater variety of things to do and her 1-year-old enjoyed crawling around on the soft turf, which wasn't possible before the upgrades.
"A fence or something separating the play area from the parking lot would be greatly appreciated for those little ones that like to dart, and more seating for parents along the perimeter of the play areas would also be a welcome addition," Priest said. "All in all though, we are pleased and excited to enjoy this new park for years to come."
Conway residents Vivian Hogue and Carol Powers said with all the improvements made to Gatlin Park, it's time to correct the spelling of the park's name.
Gatlin Park was deeded to the city in 1979 for $10 by the Conway Corp. The deed that was provided by the city describes the 13-acre strip of land as "the above stated property being commonly referred to as Gatlin Park."
But the name has long been a point of contention, with several saying that the park was actually named after a former Conway teacher and later school principal by the name of Harry Gatling -- who was born on April 28, 1911, in Bearden and died on Feb. 9, 1967, in Conway.
Kelly said while the belief that the park was named after Gatling sparks passionate debate from both sides, it's actually a myth.
"Mr. Gatling sounds like a great man and educator, but the official records show the park was not named after him," Kelly said.