Roeland Park residents band together to develop former school site

The city of Roeland Park doesn’t have money for parks projects right now, but that’s not stopping a group of dedicated citizens.

In 2011, while still feeling the effects of the recession, Roeland Park learned the Walmart at 51st Street and Roe Avenue would close. With the loss of the major income generator, city projects like revitalizing R Park, the former Roeland Park Elementary School, were put on the back burner.

But now that could change with a grassroots coalition called Citizens’ Fundraising Initiative. The group of less than a dozen residents has the impressive goal of raising $400,000 for renovations to R Park.

The city bought the former school at 5535 Juniper Drive in 2005 and designated it as a park in 2010. After the removal of the building, the property has been mostly vacant since the purchase.

With only a rundown tennis court and leftover play equipment from the school, the park is in need of improvements, said Gretchen Davis, a member of the initiative.

Davis said raising the money would take a lot of time and work, but she thinks the community will ultimately pull together for the project.

“This is going to happen even if we have to do it ourselves,” she said.

The kickoff fundraising effort hopes to raise $6,300 by July 2 — Roeland Park’s 63rd birthday, Davis said.

Citizens’ Fundraising Initiative is asking 63 Roeland Park households and business to donate at least $100.

This initial fundraiser is more about letting people know about the initiative than it is about raising money, Davis said.

In October the group plans a festival dubbed “Bacon, Blues and Brews Fest” in the park as their next large fundraising event.

The park layout would drastically change if Citizens’ Fundraising Initiative meets its goal of raising $400,000. The city’s master plan for R Park calls for a small amphitheater, new tennis and basketball courts, updated play equipment, a garden area and a walking path around the park.

Davis said the initiative would not be possible without the help of Mayor Joel Marquardt.

But Marquardt said all the credit goes to the people of Roeland Park.

“Just so thankful that we have citizens that are stepping up,” he said.

Money gathered by Citizens’ Fundraising Initiative will go to the Roeland Park Community Advisory Board, a nonprofit separate from the city that will vote on which park projects to spend the money on. Davis said the first project will probably be the walking path, which has an estimated cost of $40,000.

“I know it may seem a little crazy, but I know it’ll be successful,” she said. “People really care about having a space to come together.”

Anyone interested in contributing to the R Park initiative can make a tax-deductible donation to the Roeland Park Community Foundation, memo “R Park.” Donations will be accepted at the Roeland Park City Hall, 4600 W. 51st St.