Savannah's Playground - It's more than you think - WMBFNews.com, Myrtle Beach/Florence SC, Weather

Savannah's Playground - It's more than you think

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) – Construction is nothing new in this town. In the Market Common area something special is gaining a lot of attention, and it’s not a new housing development. Savannah’s Playground is an enabling playground designed for children with special needs.

Construction started on Savannah’s Playground in August 2015, and it is expected to be open for kids to play in February 2016.

The playground is named after Savannah Thompson, a 19-year-old Socastee High School student. She was born with Williams Syndrome, a condition that presents development delays and other challenges. But for Savannah, a hardcore Coastal Carolina University fan, her biggest challenge is how many CCU sporting events she can cram into one weekend.

“Well she has always been a great trooper about being involved and wanting to be involved,” says Marjorie Thompson, Savannah’s mom. “So we keep her engaged in the community and as active as possible. And we’re proud of Savannah and the things that she inspires people to do.”

Savannah’s smile is contagious. And soon enough, “Savannah” will be a household name.

Beaming while sitting next to his daughter, Lance Thompson says, “It happens to be named after Savannah. But for all of the children to have accessibility to the park and be able to play and enjoy – We can’t wait to see everybody out there.”

Phase 1 of Savannah’s Playground is being built on a strip of property in the Market Common area behind the recreation center. It’s an enabling playground designed to be easily accessible to all kids with disabilities starting at six months old. The ramps are wider and have more traction so that wheelchairs can go all the way up. All the knobs, gears, and games are right at wheelchair level. The swings and teeter totters are stronger, sturdier. And the musical instruments are mellow so that kids with Autism or sensitivity to sound can enjoy them. And the ground will be padded with paths leading to each section of the playground.

The playground is named after Savannah, but her family did not come up with the idea. It’s actually the passion and mission of a local non-profit led by Myrtle Beach’s Mayor John Rhodes.

Looking over the playground under construction, Mayor Rhodes exclaimed, “This is a reality now! It’s not on paper, it’s coming out of the ground.”

Mayor Rhodes says he’s been family friends with the Thompsons for a long time. And after a major life event, he felt compelled to make a difference for Savannah and her friends.

“After I survived my brain aneurysm,” Rhodes said, “I felt like I was kept here to do something that needed to be done. I don’t think it was just to be mayor of Myrtle Beach. The playground really is going to be special here, not only for our children here but for the children in our state.”

Rhodes created the non-profit, Savannah’s Playground, in 2014. Since then, he has been brainstorming, gaining sponsors, and searching for funding. The non-profit does not have a board of directors. But the original plan was for a much smaller park.

“It started out as an acre of land for a $250,000 project,” explained Rhodes. “I guess I got carried away as I started looking at all the opportunities for playground equipment. I come out here now and look at this and I’m just amazed. From a dream of one acre of land is now four acres of land, with a total project being $3 million. That’s exciting.”

Millions of dollars for a playground could seem excessive. According to playground projects from across the country, some cost a couple hundred thousand dollars. Those are typically just a few pieces of equipment. Other parks cost upwards of two and three million dollars.

For phase 1 of Savannah’s Playground, Rhodes is expecting it will cost $1.4 million. That cost reflects the quality of the equipment and the scale of the park. The equipment for an enabling park is specialized and sturdier. It is also designed to withstand the salt air.

So far, the non-profit has close to $800,000 invested in the playground. Of that dollar amount, Horry County is committing $100,000, the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs is giving $300,000, and the Myrtle Beach Air Base Redevelopment Authority (ABRA) is also contributing $300,000. And $10,000 was donated from the 2015 Carolina Country Music Festival.

Click here to view a detailed breakdown of the money that has been raised so far.

After tallying that up, Rhodes has raised close to $100,000. That still leaves at least $600,000 to go for Phase 1. But Rhodes says construction will continue, even though money is still owed on the playground. He says the sponsors and construction crews understand that fundraising takes time. Rhodes believes once the public starts to see the progress, more people will support the project.

All that money is for the equipment and the construction. Rhodes says everything else, from the social media, to the legal and financial work, to the billboards – it’s all being done for free by local sponsors.

“And I couldn’t have done it without the help of our city council,” admitted Rhodes. “City council had to okay me doing this project. And they believed in what I was trying to do.”

Ron Andrews is an assistant city manager for the city of Myrtle Beach. Andrews says this is a unique project for the city, because it’s not fully under the city’s control. Normally, he explained, if the city were undertaking a construction project, the city could control the budget, deadline, and progress. But this project required a different agreement because of who was leading it.

Mayor Rhodes approached the city council in 2015 to present his idea for the playground. He asked for council to support the project and if there would be any property appropriate for it. Andrews says the mayor then recused himself and the council decided to provide the ADA-approved property in the Market Common area. The city council also agreed to continue maintaining the property.

Andrews says no city funds were invested in the project and he does not expect the mayor to make any requests for city funding. So the resolution that council passed states the city accepts ownership of the park and to maintain it. However, the non-profit would be in charge of any funding for the purchase, maintenance, and expansion of the playground.

When complete, Rhodes says this playground will be the largest of its kind on the East Coast. Andrews says council acknowledged from the get-go that “without a doubt, it is a tourism-related activity.” And other public groups agreed by also allocating funding. Lois Mole, the public information officer for the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs, says the playground will be a “tremendous asset to Myrtle Beach.”

Rhodes says his focus is to provide the perfect playground for the kids of the Grand Strand. But he also believes this will open up another untapped tourism market. “That’s now going to give us an opportunity to promote and advertise in another market that we’ve never touched. That’s going to be another asset for tourism,” says Rhodes.

Once Phase 1 is completed and paid for, then Rhodes will start fundraising for Phase 2, a splash pad, and Phase 3, a pier over the lake. Rhodes hopes construction on those phases will be done in two years.

According to Rhodes, there are 6,000 kids in Horry County with special needs and there’s almost 4,000 in Georgetown County. He believes this playground could be a great resource for schools to make field trips to for the special needs classes.

“Lance and Marjorie always had Savannah and her sister out in the public eye,” said Rhodes. “She was just treated like anybody - like a normal person. And to this day I think Savannah doesn’t realize sometimes just how handicapped she really is. She’s so active! And I would like to see more of our children that are special needs to have that same process of thinking – of how to be involved in the social environment.”

Rhodes says he wants to give other kids with disabilities the same opportunity for growth and learning that he has seen in Savannah as she has been involved in the community.

“You know I think the playground will be a huge impact,” says Marjorie. “I think for our community, for the visitors to this community. I think it’ll actually become part of a destination for Myrtle Beach a little bit too, because it is such a great park and one of such large scale. And really, there’s nothing else like it around.”

As Rhodes was working with the company Landscape Structures to design the playground, Savannah got to pick the color. She says she picked teal for Coastal Carolina University and orange for Clemson. Mayor Rhodes, a Gamecocks fan, at one point attempted to convince Savannah otherwise.

“He said to use garnet,” said Savannah with disgust. “And I said no garnet! No way Jose, garnet!”

Loyalties aside, this playground will designed for kids with disabilities but everyone is welcome to play. And Savannah cannot wait to share it.

“I want to say thank you,” she said, with a smile as bright as the shining sun in the playground’s logo. “This is a huge honor for me and my family over here. And this is a huge honor for me and the kids.”

The ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned for early February, which is still too far away according to Savannah. If you would like to make a donation to Savannah’s Playground, click here.

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