Playground fight rages in Calhoun City

By Errol Castens

Daily Journal

CALHOUN CITY - This time it's the adults who are having a playground fight. Instead of sticks and sand, though, it's only words they're throwing at each other.

Area residents today will celebrate the opening of a new state-of-the-art playground inside the pedestrian track behind Calhoun City High School. The equipment, the injury-reducing surface and the picket fence enclosing the playground were paid for with donations and installed by volunteer labor.

Organizers of Calhoun City's annual Christmastime replication of Bethlehem aren't so happy. They say the new playground will infringe on the "Biblical City" event, which involves hundreds of volunteers and draws thousands of visitors for its three-day run each December.

"It's ruined the walk track (for us)," Biblical City organizer Pam McPhail told the Calhoun City Board of Aldermen earlier this week. The Christmas pageant consists of nearly 100 booths along the asphalt pedestrian route, where thousands of visitors see shops, homes, synagogues, schools, barns and other depictions of the birthplace of Jesus. The playground, set in the middle of the walk track, comes within a couple of feet in places.

"(Playground committee member) Pam (Helms) told me ... it wouldn't interfere with the Biblical City," McPhail said. "I was told we would have fifteen feet of clearance from the walk track."

Playground committee members say they had invited the input of pageant organizers for the project.

"We begged for Biblical City people to help plan it," committee member Connie Caviness said later.

The lack of clearance, volunteers said, resulted from a builder's error.

"It was an honest mistake," playground committee member Tony Hardin told the mayor and aldermen. Most of the allotted construction time (for which a consultant was charging $750 per day) was gone when someone noted the playground equipment had been set off-center inside the enclosure, leaving a large gap on one side but less than safety regulations would allow on another. Rather than undo most of the construction and move it, overseers opted to move the fence on the narrow side.

"We felt like we could work this out with the Biblical City, and we still can," said Hardin, whose company will furnish fabric to cover the playground during the Christmas event, making it appear in the dim light as a distant mountain. "I challenge anyone to see it as a playground during the Biblical City."

The board, following Mayor Chodie Myers' advice, did not take official action on the dispute.

"I can't see why we can't work this out," Myers said, adding praise for the efforts behind both the playground and the Biblical City. "We appreciate the work that's been done."

The grand opening of the yet-to-be-named playground is scheduled for 10 a.m. today. Already, though, it's seen enthusiastic use.

"I don't want to go home," 3-year-old Darby Claire Caviness protested Tuesday night after her mother, Connie Caviness, and other volunteers quit work on the structure more than an hour after dark. "I want to play."

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