Montgomery Business Journal

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Communities, Groups Honor Military with River Region Freedom Park

February 2014

By David Zaslawsky   

Photography by Robert Fouts

In the early stages of what now has become River Region Freedom Park on Maxwell Air Force Base, the concept could not have been more modest or simple. There would be a single playground or pod and the cost was estimated at $35,000.

That idea was derived from meetings between the military, government officials and the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce about P4 initiatives – public-public partnerships and public-private partnerships. Those P4 initiatives would enable the military to fund projects in these days of budget constraints that benefit local government or the private sector and the military.

“We were looking at where we could bring our community and our military together and we could share resources,” said the Chamber’s Dr. Cameron Martindale, senior vice president, Community Development. “The synergy of that would create something even better than we could do individually.”

Martindale said that Leslie Sanders, chairman of the Chamber’s board of directors, and Col. Trent Edwards, commander of the 42nd Air Base Wing, which includes Maxwell Air Force Base and Gunter Annex, identified the need for a park on the base.

When officials visited a potential site, the concept of a small park with a single playground began to morph into a larger project. Officials “began to talk about how wonderful it would be if we could do some additional things,” Martindale said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have an exercise track? Wouldn’t it be great if we could have some pavilions?”

A long-range, multi-stage plan for the park was discussed, according to Joe Greene, vice president, Military & Governmental Affairs for the Chamber. He said the single pod was part of a five-year plan that the City of Montgomery would devise of “what would be other elements if you were to create a larger park structure.”

Officials reviewed several options, including the front portion of the park, which now would cost about $200,000 for three playgrounds, a pavilion and restroom.

The real game-changer for the park may have been a schematic by Scott Miller, the director of the city’s Parks & Recreation Department. Now others had something tangible to view.

“He did draw a beautiful schematic of the potential of a fabulous park,” Martindale said. “Once we started to go to meetings and lay that out, there was a huge swell of enthusiasm of trying to do as much as we could do now, rather than waiting to do it in the future.”

The park structure was growing as one element became linked to another. Martindale said if the first pod or playground was for older children then there would not be a playground for older children. Once there would be playgrounds, there would be a need for a restroom.

“If you wanted to make the soccer field viable so that we could have teams from Montgomery go out and play at Maxwell, then we definitely had to have bathrooms,” Martindale said. “If you’re going to have bathrooms then you’re going to have some kind of sidewalk configuration that would join all those pieces together. Once you have that, why not take that sidewalk and make it into a track that goes all around the field. If you’re going to do that, why not have stations where you could stop along the way and do your exercise?

“If we have soccer events there, then don’t we need a large pavilion with barbecue facilities, where you could have picnics after these soccer tournaments and awards ceremonies and so forth? It was really hard to stop at one thing because to meet the needs of the adults and the children it really required all of these components. That’s how it came from that little piece.”The concept kept gaining momentum and the surrounding communities became more and more interested in the project. The original name, MGM Freedom Park, which stood for Maxwell Gunter Montgomery, did not represent the communitywide support so the name was changed to River Region Freedom Park. “This was just a wonderful project to get our arms around,” Martindale said.

That little, single-pod, $35,000, park has evolved into a $400,000, 3.5-acre project with those three playgrounds, barbecue facilities, restrooms, pavilions, soccer field, walking track and eight exercise stations. “All we wanted was something that was there for everyone and it could truly become a community gathering place for the base as well as possibly outside activities coming in that are interacting with people on the base,” Greene said. “It started to become a center – a gathering place – a significant place that everybody could use.”

Edwards, too, talked about how River Region Freedom Park becomes a gathering place. “We are so focused on the mission, but we also have to have that time for recreational activities and strike that right balance in our lives,” he said. “Quality of life – quality of service – is important. That’s what this park represents. It represents the community saying thank you to the men and women that serve.”

It is indeed a heartfelt thank you. Outgoing Chamber Chairman Horace H. Horn Jr. said, “For decades our service members and their families have enriched this community as neighbors, volunteers and civic leaders.

We owe them a debt of gratitude for what they’ve done locally, and most importantly, for the sacrifices they make in defending our nation and our freedoms. River Region Freedom Park is just one small way we can say thank you.”

On the cover of a fundraising brochure by the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation, which is donating $100,000 for River Region Freedom Park, it states: “Our local military families have long protected us. Let’s return the favor.” The foundation is leading the fundraising efforts.

Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange said that River Region Freedom Park is “our continued connectivity to Maxwell and to Gunter. It is a way to say thank you and how much we appreciate the contribution and the support that the military gives to our community. By providing this quality of life venue it’s a forever reminder of the relationship between the River Region and the military and in this particular case – Maxwell and its families.

“I know that this park will be a wonderful opportunity for military families to enjoy and always remember the River Region and the partnership that it represents.”

For Edwards, the park “will ultimately symbolize the incredible relationship we have between the military and the local community because this isn’t something they have to do. This is their way of saying thank you to the men and women that serve this great nation.”

Sanders said the park “is incredibly important because on base it links the enlisted with the officers. When you go there and there is a vibrant hub of activity then that just resonates

with all kinds of goodwill feelings for the leadership that comes on and off that base. The most important part is for our friends and neighbors that do work there – that this is the most incredible place for them.”

It will be a site for officers to learn teamwork and promote camaraderie. “A unit could go out and plan their whole leadership development team exercise there,” Edwards said. “You can run; you can recreate; you can eat; you can have a soccer game. You can do all of that in that one, single location.”

The park could be completed by summer depending on fundraising, Edwards said. Hunt Companies, which manages all the base housing, will manage and maintain the park facilities, said Stacia Schuster, director of operations for El Paso, Texas-based Hunt Companies. The firm manages nearly 40,000 military housing units at properties.

“Freedom Park will be a place of fun, relaxation, self improvement, new experiences and most of all – it will be a place for families,” Schuster said at the park’s December groundbreaking ceremony. “This is one more way that we can help improve our communities to serve those who serve our country and provide them with a place that they are proud to call home.”

Edwards said the park has an ideal location, just inside the main entrance on Maxwell Boulevard. He said after driving down the main road on the base for about 200 yards, there will be a large sign that says: ‘River Region Freedom Park.’ It’s donated and brought to you by the River Region community.”

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