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Volunteers clean up rundown park in Fairbanks' University West neighborhood

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Posted: Sunday, August 12, 2012 12:18 am | Updated: 10:35 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — With a few pulls on its cable, a chain saw roared to life Saturday morning, and Robert Souza set it to work clearing an overgrown hill in what used to be a park in the University West neighborhood.

During the past two weeks, Souza, his wife, Wendy, and a small, hard-working pack of volunteers have spent most of their free time clearing brush and small trees from an abandoned 1.2-acre parcel of land in their backyard, hoping to make it a safe place for neighborhood kids to play.

With a weed whacker in hand, Wendy Souza looked out across the mostly cleared parcel of land, which includes some 1970s-era play equipment — a sagging swing set with wooden seats and a precariously high slide — and a large, cracked concrete tennis and basketball court. Two weeks ago, most of the land had been covered with growth.

“It was completely overrun with brush and trees, and upon digging, we found we had some play equipment and three tennis courts,” she said. “It was taller than me, and there was a small path where you could just walk through to the tennis courts, but otherwise, it was completely covered with brush and trees and thorn bushes.”

The plot of land, which is surrounded by homes with an entrance near Steelhead Road and Dartmouth Drive, was a problem for the neighborhood. There have been issues almost every year, Wendy Souza said. Seven years ago, when the Souzas moved in, some neighborhood kids caught the brush on fire, and it burned down the Souza’s fence.

“About three weeks ago, the kids found a homeless man living back here,” she said. “Being it was so overrun and so hidden, it enticed the bad behavior, and we found syringes and other drug paraphernalia when we were clearing out the brush.”

Activity just started on the land because it took awhile to track down the owners. After some sleuthing, Wendy Souza found it was owned by a now-defunct property management company, but she tracked down the owner, who agreed to give them the deed to the tax-free property as long as they agreed to keep it a park.

Using Facebook word of mouth and a few particularly dedicated neighbors, like Jack Lanam and Tori Jones, the neighborhood has put together work parties during the past two weekends to start the blister-inducing task of clearing out the brush. Robert Souza said he was thrilled to see progress on the park.

“We’ve been thinking about it since we moved here seven years ago,” he said. “Now it’s hard to go to sleep because my mind is racing about what we can do with it.”

So far, the work days have attracted just a handful of neighbors, but people have stopped by offering everything from orange slices or a new coat of paint for the play equipment to a loaned wood chipper from Fairbanks Stump Grinders. Lanam said he hopes the community involvement and interest continues and grows.

“We’re not asking for a million dollars. What we’re asking people to do is show up and fill a garbage bag or haul a tree,” Lanam said after a morning of hauling brush to the chipper. “This winter, we’ll start looking at long-term plans for maintenance, but right now, we’re just trying to get the community involved.”

Wendy Souza said she would to set up either a nonprofit or a homeowner’s association to take over the park, but in the meantime, she hopes to get it cleared so kids, like her 5-year-old daughter, Kaylin, can play in safety.

By the time snow falls, the goal is to get the park cleaned up and possibly in good enough shape to hold a neighborhood event to get the community talking about what it wants to do with the park. The Souzas and Lanam are optimistic about what it eventually will look like but are trying their best to be realistic about the potential for the park — they can only do as much as the community is willing to support.

Wendy Souza said the borough has been hands-off with the park so far, reluctant to take on the extra cost of rehabilitating a park.

While taking a break from cutting brush along the property line, Wendy Souza flipped through a magazine of modern play equipment. Some are styled like castles or forests, and one has a zip line.

“Look at that; that’s awesome. Look how fun that would be,” she said. “But look at the prices. You’re talking about $18,000, $20,000 or $82,000.”

A castle-themed playground might be out of the community’s price range, but Wendy Souza said she’s excited about what the park could be and said it’ll rely on what the community wants to do. She’d be happy with clearing out the brush and putting in some easy-to-mow grass.

“The future of the park is hazy; it really depends on what the community wants to do,” she said.

There’s still plenty of work to be done, there are big holes and ankle-snagging stumps dotting the land that need to be taken care of before the park will become a destination for the community.

But on Saturday afternoon, after a long, hot day of feeding branches into the chipper, Wendy Souza was thrilled to see neighbors string up a net on the freshly cleared courts and play some tennis is the fading, late-evening light.

She posted a photo on Facebook with the caption: “People taking advantage of the new found park already! Hooray!!”

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 or follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.

To HELP OUT

For more on how to get involved with the community effort to fix up University West Park, check out the group “Rebuild University West Park” on Facebook. www.facebook.com/groups/396688

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