Young sisters Sophie and Madigan Lillard will never get the chance to play on a destination playground set for construction in their honor inside the city’s future Westside Regional Park.
But their personalities, and many of the things they loved during their short lives, will be featured in the equipment and amenities that dozens of other children will get to enjoy. And Wednesday, after five years in the making, the project took a major step toward coming to fruition.
Jan. 31 marked the five-year anniversary of the day a Myersville house fire claimed the lives of Sophie, 6, and Madigan, 3. About five months after the tragic event, their parents, Chrissi and Jack Lillard, formed the nonprofit Sophie & Madigan’s Playground LLC to begin raising money in the girls’ memory with plans to build a playground in the city.
Now, after dozens of fundraisers and countless hours of outreach, a working agreement between the city and the nonprofit to construct the playground on a portion of the city-owned park site is moving through the ranks.
Members of the Board of Aldermen on Wednesday weighed in on details of the draft memorandum of understanding and will vote on it at an upcoming public hearing.
Alderwomen Donna Kuzemchak and Kelly Russell both thanked the Lillards for their work and dedication to making the project a reality.
“It’s been an amazing experience to watch the commitment you have made for your little girls and we’re proud to have you with this,” Russell said.
Chrissi Lillard also thanked the elected officials and staff members for their work and support.
“Thank you for the opportunity because we’ve been doing this for five years now to honor my girls this way,” she said. “We are very excited for this.”
If the board approves the agreement, the Lillards said they will then finalize the timeline and begin working with the developer to narrow down the scope of the work. If all goes as planned, they hope to begin on the infrastructure work this summer and then be ready by next spring to construct the equipment.
According to the agreement, the city’s current budget includes $500,000 for basic park structures at the regional park, which Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation Bob Smith said is slated for the playground. The agreement also states that the park will take on the name “Sophie and Madigan’s Memorial Playground” when finished.
Smith also said he hopes the work will run parallel to road improvements set to begin in the fall.
The 130 acres of vacant farmland, known as Hargett Farm, along Butterfly Lane is eventually set to also include an array of park amenities, a school site, and a storage site for National Parks Service equipment and materials.
The Board of Aldermen approved a $98.5-million plan in early 2017, mapping out the tentative details of the park. The plan divides the land into sections with various options for amenities in each one.
Members of the ad hoc Westside Regional Park Task Force have been hashing out details of the plan for about a year to eventually present recommendations for the amenities.
Smith has said Sophie and Madigan’s Playground is tentatively slated for what is known as the “Festival Area” of the regional park, which is adjacent to Butterfly Lane just east of the farm structures.
The latest blueprints for the playground include three different “lands” — Fantasy Land, Neverland and Wonderland — made up of custom equipment, and details reflecting the girls’ spirits and personalities.
Lillard has said she hopes to break ground on Fantasy Land first, which she called the center of the project.
Fantasy Land is princess themed and set to include an enchanted castle, pumpkin carriage, hidden dragon, woodland cottage, whimsical swings, and horses adorned with the sisters’ favorite things. Neverland has a pirate theme and will include amenities such as a pirate ship, club house, skull rock, zip line, mermaid lagoon, hidden treasures and Tiger Lily village. Plans for the Alice in Wonderland themed Wonderland include a tea party spinner, rabbit hole log, mushroom house, large butterfly and flower shades, card soldier maze and Red Queen flower garden. The entire playground is multi-aged and will include accessible ground coverings and transfer platforms.
The Lillards said the nonprofit has raised between $400,000 and $450,000 for the playground to date.