This has been another hectic and fun-filled weekend at Swope Park, which has emerged in recent years as one of Kansas City’s hottest outdoor event spots.
Thousands of people planned to go to Starlight Theatre to listen to Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire on Friday, and then radio personality Garrison Keillor on Saturday. Others enjoyed food and music at the Ethnic Enrichment Festival, which ends Sunday.
Many other activities also have occurred this weekend at the park, as they do throughout much of the year: Families trekking through the Kansas City Zoo. Kids running around the Swope Soccer Village fields. Golfers playing on the park’s courses, with others using the disc golf course. And don’t forget all the activities occurring at the often-bustling Southeast Community Center.
Hold on a minute.
Isn’t Swope Park where many people were afraid to go after hearing about crime and other problems in the urban core?
Yes, that’s the rap. But that downtrodden image is out of date.
The largest park in Kansas City — at just over 1,800 acres — is enjoying a renaissance because significant public and private efforts successfully rebuilt cherished amenities (such as the zoo and Starlight) while new ones were added — including an off-leash dog park, the community center and miles of hiking and biking trails.
Just last week, plans were announced to offer an adventure course complete with zip lines in a heavily wooded park area.
These are sensible investments in a flourishing public asset. Rather than slowly abandon the mammoth park — or let overly dire warnings about crime kill its reputation — Kansas City voters and civic leaders have done the opposite.
Successful elections provided millions of tax dollars to expand and improve the zoo, which attracted 886,000 people in 2014.
Starlight has added a huge stage, restrooms and, recently, big video screens, much of it with private funds.
The Lakeside Nature Center was relocated to a much larger building and has more than 35,000 visitors annually.
The soccer village — a partnership with Sporting KC — benefited from public and private dollars that built nine modern fields expected to attract more than 200,000 people a year.
The city has rebuilt shelters while replacing grills and tables for picnickers.
And trails in the parks are constantly being groomed and extended thanks to volunteers.
Parks and Recreation Director Mark McHenry deserves plenty of credit for steering these and other positive efforts forward. He has been at the helm during much of the park’s rebirth. But he deflects the praise to different groups that have established their priorities of building the best possible attractions.
“We’re like a big neighborhood association,” McHenry says, pointing out that the city doesn’t even run the zoo or Starlight.
Coordination is crucial. Supporters of the many different park amenities work together to promote their events on social media while constantly looking for ways to make sure visitors have a good time.
The park’s bones need constant attention. Unfortunately, the city in the past too often fell behind in pruning trees, mowing grass, picking up trash and, most notably, repaving roads. But those concerns have been reduced in the last couple of years because the parks department has a more stable source of funding from a sales tax that voters approved in 2012.
Looking ahead, Swope Park’s size plays to its advantage; there’s still room to add amenities. A good way to make that happen is to maintain and keep improving current attractions so more people will flock there.