The area used to build Purcell Park was purchased by the City of Harrisonburg in 1954.

More than 30 Harrisonburg residents of all ages ushered into the historic Lucy Simms Center auditorium Thursday evening to discuss the future of Purcell Park located off Port Republic Road.

Former Dayton mayor L.J. Purcell, whose grandfather owned the original tract of land where the park resides, sat in attendance at the community forum. Purcell’s family of bricklayers and electricians was accompanied by 23 other families who lived beside the park in the volunteer construction of the recreational grounds. The group of hand laborers met in Purcell’s father’s basement most weekends.

“My father would say, ‘We are the pusher committee,’” Purcell said. “‘I’m tired, but I’m still pushing.’”

Since the City of Harrisonburg purchased the initial 1.5 acres of land in 1954, the park has seen the addition of a 49-foot Navy jet from the Norfolk Naval Air Station, Kids’ Castle Playground and 67 acres of sports facilities, walking trails, pavilions and a pond. Despite the growth of attractions, locals have found issues — like frequent flooding — that interfere with their time at Purcell Park.

The public forum lasted an hour-and-a-half and covered the strengths and weaknesses of the park. Tom Diehl, a project consultant at GreenPlay, LLC, the firm working with Harrisonburg Parks and Rec on this endeavor, discussed the results of the six community focus groups with participation from over 109 community members. The focus groups found that the key issues that “plague” the park are its safety concerns.

“This park’s future will be a product of our community’s interest,” Brittany Clem, marketing and special projects coordinator for Harrisonburg Parks and Rec, said.

Meeting attendees lobbied for amenities they’d like to see included in the master plan to be proposed to the City of Harrisonburg. These ranged from a splash pad and hammocks to a pollinator garden. Community members also pitched a bicycle pump track and an Octoball pit. Those at the meeting said they’d like to see the expansion of community events held in the park. One woman suggested the park host a weekly 5k run to attract new visitors.

Several meeting attendees, including L.J. Purcell, lamented their desire to see the nostalgia of the park maintained through the preservation of the existing Kids’ Castle structure and the addition of a new jet, since the first was removed in the mid-1990s because of safety concerns.

“We’re not forgetting the past as we move forward on this, but we are mindful that we have a great opportunity to create something special,” Harrisonburg City Director of Communications Michael Parks said.

Angelique Lynch attended the meeting because she’s a resident of a neighborhood adjacent to the park and the mother of five-year-old Jalen, who visits the park several times each week to play on the swings.

Lynch said she worries about the lack of signs denoting the presence of young children at play and the limited patrolling of traffic violations in the area. Her safety concern was echoed by other parents in attendance. One attendee suggested the addition of emergency phone stations throughout the park that would immediately contact first responders.

Pete Johnson coaches his daughter’s little league softball team at Purcell Park. Johnson expressed his frustration with the park’s flooding, which has caused the cancelation of several games. Additionally, Johnson cited a Title IX violation in the size of the field his team plays on.

“When you have to teach an 8-year-old to throw across the diamond of an adult softball field, you’re putting them at a disadvantage from the start,” Johnson said.

A point of disagreement at the meeting was the installation of WiFi at the park. A JMU student in attendance said he enjoys studying in the park and requires WiFi to complete his schoolwork. Other meeting attendees countered that the park is a facility that should be enjoyed while disconnected from electronic devices.

Harrisonburg Parks and Rec will be sending an invitation survey to 3,500 randomly selected city residents in the next four to six weeks to gauge opinions on the ideas proposed at the meeting. It will also be hosting a Playground Workshop on September 19 from 3-8 p.m. beside Kids’ Castle to seek input from local children and families.

“People will be able to see stuff coming out of the ground and say ‘I was a part of this,’” Parks said.

Contact Brice Estes at estes2ba@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.