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Pickleball and a splash pad are no replacement for basketball at Lee’s Summit park | Opinion



Pickleball and a splash pad are no replacement for basketball at Lee’s Summit park | Opinion

As funding for Kansas City’s suburban parks departments increases, renovation and beautification efforts of these public spaces sometimes turn quickly into the demolition of basketball courts in favor of disc golf tracks, racquetball and tennis courts.

The public parks in Lee’s Summit are a good example of these efforts, beginning with the $5 million renovation of Lea McKeighan Park, which started in 2017. As part of these efforts, the suburb tore out the park’s basketball courts. In their place, it developed a skating park, splash pad, pickleball court and an ice rink. The basketball courts were never restored.

Ryan Sorrell grew up in Lee’s Summit. He’s the founder of the nonprofit Kansas City Defender, one of the fastest growing Black news organizations in the country. Sorrell remembers spending lots of time at the basketball courts at McKeighan Park as a child. “That was a place where a lot of Black people would convene, especially young Black people, including myself. It was a place to socialize safely,” Sorrell says. The removal of the basketball courts “had a very harmful — potentially even violent — impact on our community.”

With the parks department’s deliberate choices of what to build in place of the torn-down basketball courts, residents of Lee’ Summit — mostly children, many of them minorities — are covertly hidden and overtly dissuaded from using these public facilities.

Lee’s Summit has poured millions into the city’s parks, with median house prices continuing to rise as the suburb consistently remains one of the fastest-growing communities in Missouri. Its parks projects are funded with revenues from a quarter-cent city sales tax, so as Lee’s Summit grows, there is inevitably more funding for public parks.

When initially trying to reach someone in the parks department for comment, I was met with curt responses from the marketing coordinator and told to not contact anyone further from City Hall. I have to wonder whether they are they are mum since an incident at the Lee’s Summit public pool Summit Waves made international news in August 2022, when a party of predominantly Black pool-goers were turned away from using the facilities.

I eventually corresponded via email with Lee’s Summit Parks Administrator Joe Snook, who explained how these decisions regarding parks are made. “Determinations made regarding park amenities for undeveloped and existing parks undergoing renovations involve several factors: budget, size of property, existing infrastructure, access and location of site, neighborhood and/or community input, geography, and demographics,” he wrote.

Snook also discussed several Lee’s Summit parks projects upcoming in the next five years, including an indoor sports complex (indoor sports complexes are generally not free and also require more surveillance than outdoor courts) and an outdoor pickleball complex of eight to 12 courts.

“I would consider these changes to be blatant attempts to transform or root out the existing demographic of Black people,” Sorrell said in response. “Basketball is an activity that a lot of young Black people like to do together. Black people don’t play pickleball.”

Lee’s Summit’s Lowenstein Park had a complete renovation that started in 2020. It includes a single half-basketball court, but Sorrell says that poses problems as well: “Luxury apartments are being built right next to Lowenstein Park and a lot of the greenery has been removed. Cameras and surveillance have been installed. I’ve been racially profiled over there by the police multiple times,” he told me. “There is an increased police presence, I see less Black people generally at the park.”

Public park improvements are generally beneficial to cities, but they simultaneously limit the amount of people who can use the facilities. “Our water park, community centers, amphitheater, ice rink, sports complexes and similar facilities provide programming and special events that bring people into our community adding to the economic activity of Lee’s Summit,” Snook wrote.

While parks bringing economic advantages to the city is a positive, it also actively drives away those who may not be able to use services that charge fees, since parks have historically been a free public space for all.

I talked to several area teenagers who say they usually have to drive or get rides to Blue Springs when they want to play basketball because of the limited places available to play for free in Lee’s Summit.

Decisions regarding park renovations are made by parks staff and the Lee’s Summit Parks and Recreation board. I have to wonder: Who are they keeping in mind when they make these decisions? Something as seemingly small as how we design our parks attractions can be indicative of greater trends throughout a city. Where you invest, you will grow. And it seems as if Lee’s Summit isn’t interested in investing in basketball — or investing in the people who live here and play basketball.

Molly Higgins is associate editor of Kansas City magazine and a contributing writer and producer for Wired. She lives in Lee’s Summit.

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