Public recreation projects in communities throughout Camden County will benefit from an influx of grant money awarded by the state Department of Community Affairs.
By Matt Skoufalos | July 19, 2023
Recreation projects in several Camden County communities will benefit from an influx of state aid, including a long-anticipated skatepark in Cooper River Park, stadium lighting upgrades at Cherry Hill High School East, and the transformation of the Oaklyn Swim Club into a recreation center.
In all, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) awarded $479,000 in Local Recreation Improvement Grants (LRIG) to projects in Cherry Hill ($71,000), Haddon Township ($81,000), Haddon Heights ($76,000), Merchantville ($77,000), Oaklyn ($87,000), and Pennsauken ($87,000)
Another $218,000 in LRIG funds went to the public school districts of Audubon ($87,000), Cherry Hill ($81,000) and Collingswood ($50,000).
Finally, the Camden County government won an $87,000 award for the construction of a skatepark in Cooper River Park, which officials say could be open to the public as soon as next summer.
In April 2022, the county announced broad plans for a skatepark in its $100-million, Parks Alive 2025 county project; in February 2023, officials held a visioning session with local skaters.
Camden County Commissioner Jeffrey Nash said he hadn’t appreciated the breadth of interest in constructing a public skatepark until that evening.
“The parks team always knew that there was a demand for a skateboard park,” Nash said. “I don’t think we recognized how strong a demand until the public meeting.
“When you have that type of enthusiasm for a project, it reinvigorates you to advance the project,” he said.
Since that February meeting, Camden County has secured permission from the Cherry Hill municipal government and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to situate the skatepark along North Park Drive in Cherry Hill.
It will run adjacent to where the county government hosts its seasonal WinterFest ice rink. The LRIG funds will partially offset its projected costs of $500,000 or more.
“Cooper River Park is the most widely used park in the county system, and that’s saying a lot, because all of them are widely used,” Nash said. “To build the skatepark near the WinterFest program, where we have ice skating along the river, makes it even better.
“All of this has come together, and the setting is outstanding,” he said.
“It is a great use of property.”
Next steps for the project include finalizing the park design, developing its engineering specifications, and sending the project out for a construction bid, which the commissioner estimates could happen by the fall.
If everything falls into place, people could be skating there in a year.
Nash credited the skate community with advocating for the project, especially Cherry Hill resident Marla Rosenthal, and her son, Lyle, who’d been advocating for the project for 12 years.
“I’m thrilled,” Rosenthal said. “I’m ecstatic. I can’t believe, after 12 years, my son and I are going to finally hit the finish line.
“It’s been a really wonderful thing to do with him,” she said. “As an eight-year-old, he went into the mayor’s office. He’ll be 20 next month. We never gave up.”
“It was wonderful working with my mom all these years on this incredible project, and thank you to all who supported it,” Lyle added.
Ronnie Gordon of Audubon, a schoolteacher and former professional skater, said the news made him feel the same excitement that endeared him to skating as a child growing up in Haddon Township.
“It makes me feel like I’m 11 years old, picking up Thrasher magazine,” Gordon said. “I’ve been dreaming of the skateboard community here because I believed that where I grew up, there could be a scene just as big as California. We just needed the tools to do it.”
Gordon, who still teaches skating locally, believes the site should be streetscape-style, modeled after the wide layouts of municipal plazas in Philadelphia that he skated as a child.
“The missing thing that everyone keeps asking for is a plaza that’s more aesthetically pleasing than your traditional skatepark,” he said. “Pennsauken has a bowl, it has a halfpipe; we need a more street-oriented thing.
“If it’s just a skatepark, I’ll be just as happy,” Gordon said. “I just feel that we keep missing the mark on something incredible.”
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Nash said the county office of Senior and Disabled Services will look to provide adaptive programming at the park. To Gordon, building another public skatepark in Camden County will itself make skating more accessible to the broader community.
“You go to art school, learn every medium, and figure out what you do — that’s what skateboarding is,” he said.
“I [taught] kids who saw skateboarding at the Olympics, and they weren’t interested in becoming Olympians, but because they saw skateboarding, they said, ‘I want to learn how to do that.’”
From Swim Club to rec facility
Oaklyn Administrator Bonnie Taft said the borough will dedicate its $87,000 grant award to the continued cleanup of the former Oaklyn Swim Club, which is being redeveloped as a recreational facility.
Once completed, the project will feature basketball courts and a hockey rink, amenities that the borough has situated near its public school, but which have deteriorated over time.
Taft said the local government also aims to preserve the historic train station on the property, which has similarly fallen into disrepair, as a community meeting room.
“We’re in the demolition stages,” Taft said. “Our plan, in the initial phase, is to get it all cleaned up to have it be a safe space. Right now, the biggest cost is removing the concrete [from the former pools].”
The concrete removal is being performed by the borough public works department; Taft said the project will also leverage another $25,000 in Camden County open space dollars awarded to Oaklyn last year.
Pickleball courts at Crystal Lake Pool
In Haddon Township, Mayor Randy Teague said his community will use its $81,000 grant award to create pickleball courts in the recreation area at Crystal Lake Pool.
“We get asked about the potential for pickleball courts often,” Teague said.
“We saw the opportunity, and applied for it. Hopefully, we can make this happen.”
Teague said the township professionals will explore the anticipated costs of the project as well as the feasibility of locating the courts near the playground equipment at the pool complex.
Although the project has yet to be designed, it won’t impede the soccer fields nearby, the mayor said.
Improvements to River Road Pickleball Complex
Pennsauken will dedicate its $87,000 grant award to fixing up its public pickleball courts on River Road, township spokesman Frank Sinatra said.
The restoration will include milling and repaving the court surface as well as improving fencing surrounding the complex, Sinatra said.
Stadium lighting at Cherry Hill East
At Cherry Hill High School East, an $81,000 grant award will help to fund stadium improvements, including upgrades to track and field lighting for community use of those facilities. (The whole athletic complex is being overhauled after the passage of a $364-million bond referendum in 2022.)
“Our buildings and grounds crew worked with the architect and construction teams to find more energy-efficient lighting and controls so that the community can safely enjoy use of those areas,” Cherry Hill Board of Education President Miriam Stern said.
“We are very grateful to be able to improve our building’s footprint for community use with this great alternative funding source,” Stern said.
Haviland Avenue School adds accessible playground equipment
Audubon Public Schools Superintendent Andy Davis said the district will add more adaptive and handicap-accessible play equipment to the playground at Haviland Avenue School.
The playground is also open to the public outside of school hours via an entrance on South Logan Avenue. Work will begin next spring, Davis said.
Brandywood Park playground upgrades
Cherry Hill will leverage $71,000 in LRIG dollars to alleviate flooding that rendered some playground equipment at Brandywood Park inaccessible to everyone.
Cherry Hill Director of Recreation Megan Brown said a pair of swingsets will be moved closer to the roadway to keep them out of a flood-prone area, while the township also adds new picnic tables and seating, and updates the existing play equipment with handicap-accessible structures.
Brown said the DCA dollars are “very important to us” because they allow the department to stretch capital its funding.
“We can one-shot projects instead of phasing them in,” she said.
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