June 18, 2010

Joy at the Fountain; help is on the way

For a while Friday morning, it was like old times at the Laurel Clark Memorial Fountain.

For almost half an hour, a dozen kids romped in the spray, laughed, got their bathing suits wet, splashed each other. Had good, clean fun at no cost to their parents on a hot and otherwise muggy day.

And then the police car slowly came down 6th Street. "Kids, get out of the water," two adults yelled. And the kids did, and stood -- dripping wet -- behind the women as the officer got out of the squad and quietly, gently, told them what they already knew: kids are not allowed in the fountain anymore. He did not issue any $75 tickets.

This would have been a really sad moment -- and not the first one like it at the fountain this summer -- except for one thing: Moms, kids and police alike know that two days ago SC Johnson bailed the city out of the depressing situation of having a kid-magnet splash pad downtown that's off-limits to kids. Help, in other words, is on the way. The fountain's plumbing will be rebuilt for the now-required chlorine; and something will be done about the now-required bathroom and attendant.

On my way to the Library this morning, I just happened to spot three men in conversation at the east end of the fountain: Tom Friedel, city administrator, Rick Jones, public works commissioner, and another man. They saw me at the same time I saw them, and Jones and the third man hurried off (I have that effect on some people.) -- and Friedel said no when I asked him to let me take his picture next to the fountain.

For some reason he thinks I've been too harsh on the city. I assured him I've said only 5% of what I really think about the city's rolling over and playing dead when changes in state law imposed requirements on the fountain that it didn't meet: a bathroom, attendant, chlorinated water. Friedel said our headline, "City bans kids from fountain," was unfair; it should have said "State bans kids."  I can't find that exact headline in our archives, but it's possible; we did have one that said, "Racine orders kids out of Laurel Clark fountain." But we're both splitting hairs.

Friedel also insists that the fountain originally was planned as a "visual" attraction only; definitely not for kids. When I reminded him that various aldermen distinctly remember seeing illustrations during the design phase of the $700,000 project of kids playing in it, Friedel says "their memories are mistaken."  Never mind that the fountain was once officially named "Splash Square," and that in 2007 Brian O'Connell, city development director, explaining why no work was done on it during the summer said: “We didn’t want to have the fountain out of commission in the summer. We wanted it available for kids to play."

Friedel is right, of course, when he says the fountain's problem came from Madison, not from City Hall. But when I argued that the city should have fought with state officials to get the rules changed -- as it did when it successfully lobbied the Legislature to extend by 10 years TIF district funding rules -- or get the fountain grandfathered, something, anything ... he said, "We can only fight so many battles." The battle city officials have been fighting, he said, was commuter rail. One can argue which is more important... or more do-able.

He also said that we -- the public --  have no idea of the many hours city officials wrestled with the problem. He's right, we don't. We just know what the result was, until SCJ came forward this week with a donation offer, estimated at $200,000+, to rebuild the fountain's plumbing, so it can withstand the corrosive chlorine needed to keep the water clean. It is a very generous gift, one that will allow Johnson Financial employees to look out their  nearby windows on Sam Johnson Parkway with pride for years to come.

Of course, there is more to negotiate. There's still that bathroom required by the state regulations promulgated in 2005 -- I suppose a PortaPotty would technically suffice, although they are ugly as sin (just look at the row of them across from Monument Square right now for Saturday's Lighthouse Run). And then there's the attendant -- totally superfluous but required by state regulations: who's going to pay the bill for that over the next 100 years, I asked Friedel, who helps manage the city's $82 million annual budget. "We're still working on that," he said.

But that's the good news: The city is working on a solution now, not putting up Keep Out signs, or assigning a Parks Dept. hall monitor, or building the once-suggested $30,000 fence to keep kids out. There is joy in Mudville after all.

Later Friday, Friedel described the city's immediate plan to fix equipment ruined by the chlorine erosion, install fencing on Sixth Street south of the fountain to keep kids from traffic, close the block of Sam Johnson Parkway north of the fountain and install a telephone. The fountain should open officially (and legally) by July 4.