Village exploring Project Backboard for downtown legion park area

multicolored basketball court
Examples of completed Project Backboard basketball courts in other parts of the country.

Village leaders are exploring ideas for upgrading the downtown park area with the vision of creating an active hub of outdoor recreation for Stillwater children and families.

The specific focus is on the American Legion property down the hill from the Stillwater Area Community Center (SACC) with its athletic fields, small playground and dilapidated basketball courts last used as an ice skating rink a few winters ago.

“It’s about creating more of a village center for all of us … another area for kids to come together,” said Aimee Salecker, SACC executive director. “I feel like our village needs to come back to becoming a homey community again like when I grew up here. We need things that will draw and keep people for the long run.”

multicolored basketball court with hoop
Examples of completed Project Backboard basketball courts in other parts of the country.

Salecker comments were part of a discussion at the May Village Board meeting where Trustees revisited an ongoing dialogue on what to do to upgrade the legion park area. The land is owned by the legion but the village oversees the recreational facilities.

A few years ago the village erected a small playground on the land but it hasn’t had the draw many had hoped for. Meanwhile, the old basketball courts are in disrepair and operating the ice rink is no longer feasible because the liner is damaged, difficult to store off-season and too costly to keep replacing. Even with a new liner, the longtime ice rink volunteers are no longer available to prepare the rink each year and no one new has stepped forward.

For many years, Deputy Mayor and Trustee Judy Wood-Shaw, the board’s liaison for parks and recreation, has been actively seeking a way to revitalize the legion facilities so children and families want to go there. Wood-Shaw worked to secure a state grant to rebuild Major Dickinson Park across town a few years ago and she’d like something that will make a similar impact in the downtown area.

“We have a nice park down there but it needs work,” Wood-Shaw said.

Among the ideas proposed were creating a dog walking park, and more recently, a splash pad water park for families to cool off in the summer. But finding the financing, and legal and insurance hurdles have slowed progress on these and other ventures.

 Enter Project Backboard

While the splash pad idea is still be considered, the next item on the table is Project Backboard. Project Backboard began in 2014 when Daniel Peterson, a former college basketball player and employee of the Memphis Grizzlies, noticed the neglected state of several basketball courts scattered around his city. To revive these spaces, Peterson began to refurbish the courts with small improvements—filling in cracks or repainting the basic lines needed for a regulation game.

As Peterson began updating courts across Memphis, his interest widened to include ways he could not only improve his local courts, but generate excitement in surrounding neighborhoods for their public parks. After learning a local artist was already designing an installation for a nearby court, he partnered with the artist to paint the park’s gray asphalt with bright blue and pink designs. The collaboration marked the beginning of Project Backboard, while also inspiring Peterson to work with local artists who were already engaged within a chosen community.

After reading an article about Project Backboard in a municipal magazine, Village Clerk Sheristin “Sher” Tedesco was impressed so she contacted Peterson to inquire about doing the same with the legion courts. She and village officials initially discussed the idea with him by telephone and email. Those discussions will continue later this month as they work to nail down the specifics and a budget for the artwork.

In the meantime, Tedesco has found a local investor to help out and has got the price for resurfacing the basketball courts under $16,000. The Town of Stillwater, she said, has also agreed to purchase four backboards, poles and hoops for the two new courts. A center area would also be constructed between the two courts for a scorer’s table setup to host tournaments.

Once the courts are repaired and resurfaced, Peterson’s groups would work with the village to prepare the art designs and raise funds if needed. The village would like to work with local art students and a teacher from Stillwater High School to help out. Students recently designed historic banners that will be hung on village light posts this spring, and the village would like them to be a part of this project as well.

“I prefer to work with artists who have a connection to the park or (municipality) where we are working,” Peterson said in the magazine article. “Having the artist on site is very helpful for installation and, especially if it is a (municipality) I am not as familiar with, local artists can create a work with more meaning and context.”

After reviving several basketball courts in Memphis, Project Backboard has moved on to produce projects in St. Louis and Los Angeles. Currently the organization is working with cities along the East Coast, specifically Baltimore and New Rochelle, New York. Could the Village of Stillwater be next?

The village has formed an exploratory committee made up of Tedesco, Wood-Shaw, and Trustee Judy Wood-Zeno to answer that very question. As part of its work, the committee will also examine the entire legion park area and attempt to put a plan together for a long-term organized redevelopment.

Tedesco said legion officials have given the village a preliminary OK to proceed, as the legion itself revealed plans last March to construct a brand new Stillwater American Legion hall on the property. The new facility would be twice as large as the existing building and offer 3,000 square feet of space for weddings and functions. The new hall will not interfere with the recreational plans.