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Smith Playground hosts community celebration for finalization of renovations

The Make The World Better foundation, a nonprofit started by former Eagles player Connor Barwin, raised more than $3 million worth of improvements for the West Passyunk facility.

GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review

Vibrant patches of red and green turf glistened in the Saturday sunshine as dozens convened at Smith Playground on 24th and Jackson streets.

The colossal synthetic terrain, which includes football and baseball playing fields, is one of several features encompassed in the nearly three-year series of renovations to the West Passyunk park — home to the South Philly Hurricanes.

Kicking off in late 2015, the Make The World Better Foundation, a nonprofit founded by former Eagles player Connor Barwin, has raised more than $3 million for Smith, including resources from the city and state, as well as funding from local organizations, businesses, foundations and private donations, and even institutions such as the National Football League and ESPN.

Last weekend’s afternoon of games, competitions and dedications by officials, including Mayor Jim Kenney, served as the official community celebration and ribbon-cutting for the highly anticipated project that stretches over 7.5 acres.

“We’re here to celebrate an absolutely incredible transformation of Smith Playground, which was always an amazing place, but now, physically, reflects the amazing activities that happen here,” Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of Parks and Recreation, told the crowd.

Throughout the process, the MTWB foundation partnered with several revitalization and redevelopment initiatives, including the Philly-based Urban Roots and national nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corporation.

The first phase, which was completed in spring 2016, focused on improvements to the rec building, including the installation of a kitchenette and the first WHYY and Keyspot Media Lab.

Phase 2, which started in fall 2016 and just recently wrapped up, included playground upgrades, renovated basketball courts, new turf sport field, outdoor fitness area, a walking trail and Green Stormwater Infrastructure operated by the Philadelphia Water Department.

Aside from improving athleticism, the site concurrently fosters mentorship in the neighborhood’s youth.

“We know when we deal with the issue of violence that’s taking place in our communities, it’s important to have our young people to get involved with things to stay positive,” said Second District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who recalls dust balls once fouling the Smith site.

The site sits just behind Wilson Park — the largest Philadelphia Housing Authority development in the City.

Officials stressed the incessant need for similar renovations to break ground in communities throughout Philadelphia, as Ott Lovell noted Rebuild Philadelphia — a 2017 initiative implemented by Kenney, which invests $500 million in parks, playgrounds and rec centers around the city.

“This is an amazing opportunity for us to showcase how you can partner city and state with philanthropy and how you can get things done for the young people in our community,” said state Rep. Jordan Harris.

During the fundraising, Johnson’s office donated $820,000, former Mayor Michael Nutter’s office donated $400,000, the offices of Parks and Recreation funded $300,000 and the Philadelphia Water Department provided $600,000, as reported by SPR in 2016. The NFL gifted two grants, totaling $420,00, according to Barwin.

A focal point of renovations is Smith’s new stormwater management, which diverts more than 5 million gallons of water from the sewer system every year.

The management is part of PWD and the city’s Green City, Clean Water initiative — a 25-year multi-billion program to use natural, vegetated practices in communities to manage stormwater and reduce pollution in the rivers.

The infrastructure carries tremendous amounts of stormwater into the soil, redirecting it away from water pipes, which, in due course, stops pollutes the city’s drinking water supply.

“This is nature at work, and nature can be integrated into your play area,” said Marc Cammarata, a PWD official.

At the conclusion of speeches, youngsters huddled at the 30-yard line for the official ribbon-cutting. From environmental to recreational, the spectrum of renovations at Smith Playground was acclaimed by attendees all afternoon — and will continue to do so for many years to come.

“We appreciate (MTWB) for not just dropping in from the sky and making some investments here,” Ott Lovell said. “But, for working one-on-one with this community, with these neighbors, with these stewards to make sure that these improvements truly reflect the dreams and aspirations of every single person who lives in this neighborhood.”

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