A Splash Pad Story of Community Construction from Atwater

Atwater has many things, but it was missing a splash pad. The residents made up for that loss by making the dream a reality with abundant community support. What was a mere idea shared among neighbors turned into a completely community supported project from start to finish. Marketing and Communications Specialist Kelsey Olson talked with residents to hear the splash pad story.

“The idea came from Jerry Spencer; he started talking about it to his neighbors,” said Lee Mickle, the Atwater resident who served as the general contractor for the project told us. “Then, in January 2020, Jerry and what would become the Atwater Splash Pad Committee introduced the idea to the community through a themed beach party at the community center. People loved the idea!” Jerry Spencer and his wife, Judy, moved to Atwater in 1993, where they raised their two daughters. Like many Atwater residents, he was active in the community, a member of the Lions Club, Atwater City Council, and the Litchfield Rotary Club, and an avid outdoorsman. Although Spencer passed away before the first dirt was moved for the project, he was vital in its success by proposing the idea, gathering community interest, and playing a crucial role in having the Lions Club be the fiscal host. “The project couldn’t have happened without their support, and once we had the community introduction, things were rolling along…then COVID happened, but it wasn’t all bad for us. People had the time, and those without money before had money and were willing to donate,” Mickle shared. By August 2019, the site had been reviewed, and by March 2021, the equipment had been purchased. On April 7th, the first dirt was moved, and the volunteerism, including donated labor, continued until it opened in the second week of August 2021.

The equipment was purchased for $83,000 from Commercial Recreation Services, which first estimated the splash pad’s original price at $176,000, and that price didn’t include sidewalk, water, excavation, or electricity. The plan also included a shelter. The hope was to raise $147,000 through grants, sponsorships, memorials, honorarium bricks, and matching donations by local businesses. The community’s generosity caused the metaphorical splash bucket to overflow with an overall donation amount of $229,688.77! “One way we were successful in fundraising was having a lot of different ways and levels folks could donate,” Data/Financial/Communications Project Manager Megan Morrison, Atwater resident and recipient of the Atwater Good Neighbor Award explained. “A match campaign was launched by four private donors collectively pledging  $30,000 in matching funds, and the community came forward and not only met that match but also exceeded it. We had pavers and achieved two grants—one from the Willmar Area Community Foundation and the other from BNSF Railway Foundation. There were different levels of splash donations, from splash-sized to dip-sized. We even had donation boxes where folks could drop change in, and those alone raised over $2,000!”

Eagle Scout Ryan Busskohl raised all the funds needed and, with the help of his Boy Scout troop, constructed the shelter addition. When all was said and done, the following monetary and labor time donations were made:

  • 72 businesses contributing $89,407.65
  • 74 volunteers donating 2,500 hours of labor 
  • $20,000 from the City of Atwater, $20,000 grant from the Willmar Area Community Foundation and another $5,000 from BNSF Railway Foundation
  • And Mickle estimates the overall value of the project to be near $500,000 with volunteered time and business labor!

When asked just how the project came together and how the community made such a project possible, the answers consistently revolved around Atwater’s easy-going, fun-loving, and generous culture. “People are invested,” said Shane Hagstrom, Atwater City Council Member and teacher at ACGC, “We even had people that don’t live here anymore donate. One woman graduated from here and moved away. She said, ‘You can leave Atwater, but Atwater will never leave you!’ and it’s true!” he added, “Grandparents stepped up for the sake of their grandchildren. Farmers were also willing; businesses were willing but are asked a lot to support community efforts, farmers weren’t tapped into, everyone really stepped up for this project,” Hagstrom said. “All you have to do is ask around here, and people are usually willing to help,” said Ricky Whitcomb, active community member and joint-owner of Whitcomb Brothers Drain Systems, who donated the concrete work and an estimated value of $8,000 in labor costs.

When asked what the most significant challenges were, Lee Mickle didn’t have an answer, “It all went pretty smoothly; everyone stepped up,” Mickle answered, adding, “It was a great community project, a great thing for me, but the community invested in money, time, and talent; you can’t ask for anything more than that. You really can’t!”

 Morrison’s answer summed up the project and the town’s ability to come together, “Atwater is comprised of lots of personalities and people. But overall, we are all down to earth; we are real people. We’re blue-collar. We like to work together, and we like to be together.” And, as Morrison, an Atwater ‘transplant’ can attest to, the city does welcome people with open arms and wants you to come together with them, whether that’s for Atwater Festival Days, a Chuckers baseball game, Threshing Day, or at the Atwater Splash Pad this summer! 

A post published in June of 2021 by the Atwater Splash Pad Facebook site expresses the community effort of the project


This article was first published in the April 2024 KCED Newsletter

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