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April 15 Deadline for Chicago Plays! Competition for Playground Funds

ALBANY PARK — Of Chicago's 300 aging playgrounds, 35 will receive an upgrade in 2013 as part of the Chicago Park District's recently announced Chicago Plays! program.

Let the "Hunger Games" begin.

Though the goal is to outfit all 300 playgrounds with new equipment over the next five years, community groups across the city are competing for the chance to jump to the head of the line, scrambling to complete Chicago Plays! applications for their neighborhood playlots. The applications are due to Friends of the Parks by April 15.

West River Park Neighbors has taken Ronan Park under its wing and is in the midst of gathering the required application materials, which can only be submitted by organizations, not individuals, as a gauge of community support.

"I don't think we would have thought about it if the program wasn't there," said Amy Kozy of West River Park Neighbors. "I don't think we would have gone after something with such a financial outlay."

Unlike typical playground renovations — in which the Park District foots a third of the bill, with the remainder split between the alderman's office and private interests such as park advisory councils — Chicago Plays! is picking up the entire tab, courtesy of the Park District's capital budget.

In exchange for the free upgrade — which is strictly a replacement program for equipment at existing parks — groups lose a certain amount of control over the end result.

The surface for the playgrounds will be uniformly Fibar, a soft, engineered product that resembles wood chips, said Maria Stone of Friends of the Parks.

According to the manufacturer, Fibar is "soft enough to cushion falls ... firm enough for wheelchairs."

Equipment will come in one of two standard options for small, medium and large playlots. (See slideshow.)

"After the playgrounds are selected, the Park District will go in to see what can fit. Not every playground will look the same," said Stone.

For playgrounds with an iconic feature — say, a pirate ship — the potential exists for that piece of equipment to be refurbished rather than removed, according to Stone.

Stone cautioned that it's not possible to accept Fibar now and retrofit later with the spongy poured rubber surface that's being used at many new parks. But community groups that have their hearts set on a customized design and equipment at their parks still have the option of the traditional funding route, which will ultimately affect the total number of playgrounds revamped by Chicago Plays!, she said.

Groups seeking funding need to collect petition signatures (a minimum of 50), a letter of support from their alderman and provide a conditions report and community impact statement.

"We're encouraging creativity, photos, videos, letters from kids," said Stone.

Friends of the Parks, the Park District and the Injury Free Coalition of Chicago will assess the applications and make their selection by mid- to late-May, according to Stone. The playgrounds will be updated in the fall.

The cost per upgrade averages about $100,000 per park, the Tribune reported.

Kozy is "hoping the facts will speak for themselves" when it comes to Ronan Park.

"It's not unusable, but it really does need a facelift," she said.

Located at 3000 W. Argyle St., the playground is sandwiched between the Chicago River and a block of apartment buildings.

"It's really kind of the back yard for the people who live near Ronan Park. It does get a lot of use," Kozy said. "It really does belong to the neighborhood."

Over the years, the playground has been a frequent graffiti target and equipment has become weathered and outdated, including slides that terminate feet above the ground and deposit toddlers with a "thump" into mulch.

"Any kind of improvement shows the space is valued," Kozy said.