COLUMBIA — It's Sunday, Aug. 21, 1949, in Columbia, and about 10,000 people are attending a dedication of Cosmo Park, a 35-acre tract donated to the city by the Cosmopolitan Luncheon Club. That’s quite a turnout for a town with a population of around 15,000.
Adjacent to the small park, in the area that eventually would grow to become the 533-acre Cosmopolitan Recreation Area, is Columbia's Municipal Airport.
It wasn't until the 1970s that the airport closed and the city bought the land to create the regional park that today remains the city’s largest. The Parks and Recreation Department developed a master plan for the area, and construction began in 1972. During the next 25 years, the park would become home to softball complexes, tennis courts, soccer and football fields, a skate park and even a mountain biking trail.
Fast-forward from that 1949 dedication ceremony to November 2000. A park sales tax has just won the approval of 76 percent of Columbia voters, allowing the city to buy Stephens Lake Park from Stephens College. Barbara Hoppe led the effort to save the park from commercial use, and she wants to walk the property now owned by the city. She and her husband, Mike Sleadd, are taking the stroll when he tells her he’s not feeling well, prompting the couple to turn around and go home.
The next day Sleadd had a heart attack.
"We always say he almost gave his life for the cause," Hoppe joked. Sleadd has since recovered and been in good health.
Both Hoppe and Sleadd were dedicated to saving Stephens Lake Park, which has quickly become a staple of the parks system.
"We literally worked nonstop day and night and on the weekends for pretty much a year,” Hoppe said. “This was a passion; we just had to be successful. Not being successful was just not an option in our minds.”
Since Columbia's first publicly owned park opened in 1949, many residents have felt a similar passion — including residents of the Grasslands.
In 2001, the Grasslands confronted a threat. A developer wanted to add an 11-building apartment complex on Clarkson Road. Residents already were struggling with traffic, and the apartments, with 170 parking spaces, would have made it worse.
John Ott, president of the Grasslands Neighborhood Association, took action, working with the association to raise enough money to buy the land from the developer then donate it to the city for a park.
Whether its turning an airport into a regional park, buying and improving a privately owned park or working to create a small park for a passionate neighborhood, the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department has had its work cut out for it since 1949. Operations for Columbia's more than 60 parks are outlined and driven by the Parks, Recreation & Open Space Master Plan, updated every 10 years. It tracks what the city already has and determines what parks it may build or upgrade.
A long and winding road: Cosmo Park
Cosmo Park is alive with activity. Its amenities attract a diverse crowd: children using the playground; athletes playing sports; and some people who use the park for more unique purposes. Neil Brock, for example, likes to come to Cosmo to fly his stunt kites.
"I think I've come up here 230 times this year," Brock said.
He said he likes the park's open, flat land and often stands in one of the empty football fields, gracefully guiding his kite through the air.
The initiative to create Cosmo Park began as early as 1947, when the Cosmopolitan Club of Columbia decided the city needed a park, club president Phil Hanson said.
The club bought that original 35 acres at the end of the airport's runway and donated it to the city. It also donated time and labor to help develop the park.
"We built the first shelters out there, and all of those were built by hand," Hanson said.
The Cosmo Club also installed swings, slides, benches and picnic tables. It continued to donate money and laborwith other organizations chipping in, too. The Junior Chamber of Commerce of Columbia worked with the Cosmos to build the first nine holes of what is now L.A. Nickell Golf Course.
Once the airport moved and the city bought that property in the early 1970s, development really took off. The city had more than 500 acres to develop a regional park that would attract people from all over mid-Missouri.
One challenge in converting an airport into a regional park was actually getting the message out to pilots that they no longer should land there.
"The aeronautical guidance system was still located on the golf course, even though the regional airport was located south of town," said Steve Saitta, a parks development superintendent for the city. "Occasionally a pilot would get confused. They'd get that signal, and they would fly over, and from the air it still looked like an airport, even though the runways had big X's on them. "
The planes that experienced this problem were typically smaller, and their pilots were able to land in the park anyway.
"When that'd happen, what we would have to do is block off the ends of the old runway and clear all the cars and allow the plane to take off again. We were glad when people got to the point when they realized it wasn't an airport anymore and stopped landing here," Saitta said.
The park's former status as an airport did carry benefits.
"In many respects it made it a little easier," Saitta said. "One of the problems you run into when you start to develop a big tract of land is that it doesn't have any infrastructure. One of things we had here was all of these buildings that were part of the airport hangars."
The parks department converted the hangars into useful buildings, including the current parks management office.
Asphalt from the runway provided hundreds of parking places and roadways and still offers the perfect place to learn how to ride a bike. Just ask Owen Jones, 4, who learned how to ride a two-wheeler at Cosmo the first weekend in December.
He and his dad, Cason Jones, visit the skate park at least once or twice a week while Jennifer Jones, Owen’s mother, exercises on the trails.
"I was born and raised here," Jennifer, 33, said. "I remember having birthday parties here as a kid in those shelters."
"I remember when I had my birthday here," Owen chimed in.
Whether for biking, skating, birthday parties or other special events, such as an appearance by professional skateboarder Tony Hawk, the Joneses finds lots to do at Cosmo. They might spend even more time there next spring when Owen turns 5 and is able to participate in some of the city's youth sports leagues.
When the city took ownership of Cosmo Park, grants and donations helped to build soccer fields, baseball diamonds and the Rainbow Softball Complex.
The Cosmo Club was still helping out, too, building tennis courts, restrooms, shelters and trails over time.
The skate park was a major addition that was not anticipated in the original master plan. The Cosmo Club donated it as well.
Saitta said that after heavy lobbying from the skateboard community in the 1990s, the council decided to add the skate park.
"That's when we were asked to come up with a site and design for the park," Saitta said. "That has worked out way beyond our expectations. We didn't realize how popular it would be."
The skate park is now among the park's most popular features, no matter what the weather is like.
"It could be 12 degrees, and there will still be some kids skating here," said Jim Marz, 34, who's been skating since 1985.
Gates Burchfield, 14, uses the skate park once or twice a week. He usually goes with friends and sometimes brings his cousin Hallie Gibbs, 13, of Jefferson City.
"I go to the skate park in Jeff City," Gates said, "but I like this one better. It's a lot bigger, and there's more things to do."
Today, Cosmo Park is running out of room to grow. There are still small plans, such as the remote-control car track under construction on the park's east end, but the focus now is on renovation and maintenance. Still, a demand exists for more ball fields and other recreation facilities. That's why the city is in the early stages of developing another regional park, on the former Crane and Philips Lake properties in southeast Columbia. Plans there include sports complexes, an equestrian area, an ice rink and plenty of open space.
The power of the people: Stephens Lake Park
Even on a cold afternoon in December, dedicated park lovers still head to Stephens Lake Park to use the trails or enjoy the park's serene atmosphere. Xane Keenan, 11, sat by Stephens Lake reading a book after riding his bike from his grandparent's house across the street.
Xane visits the park two or three times a week, usually with his grandparents. "We usually walk my grandpa's dog over here," he said.
Xane also likes riding scooters, running, jogging, biking and swimming during the summer.
"My grandpa's lived there since this place was a golf course, so I came here when it was a golf course, too,” he said. “I've been coming here pretty much the entire time it's been here."
The park holds many memories that he can't wait to share with his new brother or sister; his mom expects another child in February.
"I'm gonna walk her around here and tell stories about what I've done here with my friends," he said.
The role of the Stephens Lake property in Columbia dates back around 200 years. The park department details that history on its Web site.
In the 1800s, Capt. David Gordon owned the property. He lived in a cabin there while Gordon Manor was being built, and the cabin eventually became a slaves’ quarters. The land also included an area known as Happy Hollow, where Cherokee families and some slaves are believed to have lived.
The property became a private park in 1926, when Stephens College bought it. The school built a nine-hole golf course and enlarged the lake. Although privately owned, the park was open to those who bought inexpensive memberships.
As the college began to deal with financial hardship, membership dwindled, and Stephens considered selling the land for commercial development.
"To me that seems like a horrible thing for a great resource and a historic resource," Hoppe said.
The Hinkson Creek Neighborhood Association, with Hoppe as its president, formulated ideas on how to save the park and decided to address the City Council. Other neighborhood groups and organizations became involved, and Hoppe represented them at the council meeting.
Although the council liked the idea of buying the property for a park, it lacked the money to do so. Hoppe and others formed the Coalition to Save Stephens Lake and collected more than 3,000 signatures. They also contacted national organizations for help, including the National Trust for Public Land, which proved fruitful.
"By that time we had a Web site, and we had buttons … so, it looked like we had a movement going, and they were interested," Hoppe said. A vice president from the trust suggested the city try to pass a park sales tax.
Hoppe was appointed co-chair of a committee that worked to get a ballot issue passed by holding fundraisers, concerts and open houses and by handing out pamphlets and going door to door. The whole project took about a year and a half. After the sales tax passed, the city bought the land and had to decide how to further develop it.
Phase I of construction began in 2003. It included an island, shelters, playgrounds, a boat ramp, trails and parking lots, andit cost$2.5 million dollars. The park was officially dedicated on Aug. 4, 2004.
The trails proved popular among dedicated exercisers, who use them in almost any weather. Kathryn Lucas, 61, walks her standard poodle, Emma, five days a week. She also likes to take her 3-year-old granddaughter, Kate, to the park when she comes to visit.
The trails are also easily accessible for people on the go. Melody Freeman, 51, stops by the park about once a month. "Usually I'm en route somewhere else, and I just park the car and take as many laps as I have time for."
Spray grounds and waterfalls were added in 2008 and 2009. An outdoor amphitheater, the park's last feature, is expected to open this spring.
A neighborhood effort: Grasslands Park
Grasslands Park, dedicated in October, is one of the city’s newest parks. It represents a cooperative effort of neighborhood residents and the city.
"Since the park opened this summer, families have brought picnic lunches here,” resident Vicki Ott said. “I know a lot of people don't have big swing-sets in their backyard, so it gives that opportunity for kids to run wild and have fun."
"I'm sure there's not a day that goes by that it isn't used by somebody," Chris Walthall, 52, said.
John Ott represented the neighborhood association at a City Council meeting on Aug. 5, 2002, where he expressed neighbors’ concern about the potential for an apartment complex in their neighborhood. Ott raised the idea of using neighbors' donations to buy part of the property for a neighborhood. More than 100 residents stood up and showed their support.
Soon after, the council granted permission for the land to be purchased and donated to the city for a park. It also agreed to pay $680,000 up front for the property. The city got $150,000 back through neighbors' donations and more by selling part of the land. The rest of the money came from park sales tax. Once the park entered the planning phase, the neighborhood raised an additional $13,042 for development.
Many residents were also deeply involved in planning the park during meetings hosted by the city.
"The neighborhood, for the most part, wanted the park to remain natural," senior parks planner Mike Snyder said. "They weren't wanting a whole lot of developed amenities, so it was a fairly simple process."
The only features neighbors wanted were a small playground, a natural area and space for open play and picnics. The City Council swiftly approved the master plan.
"This case kind of sailed on through because when the neighborhood association approved of the plan, and since they donated the land to us, the (Parks and Recreation Commission) and City Council were pretty likely to go along with what they wanted," Snyder said.
The city began construction in spring 2009 and dedicated the park on Oct. 10.
"The end result, the work the parks department does, is just incredible with what they end up doing," Ott said at the dedication ceremony. "Here we just had some woods that some of the kids used as a wooded area, but we have this beautiful park now."
Walthall was also pleased, but she said she wishes her children, now 23 and 16, could have enjoyed the park.
"You always want it to be when your kids are little, but I'm happy that other people's kids get to enjoy it, and hopefully someday my grandkids will get to enjoy it," she said.