LIMA — It began with great intentions.
The greenspace now known as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center Park on Lima’s south side has a history that goes back to the 1960s.
In April 1963, the papers reported the Ohio Steel Foundry offered to lease 20.32 acres between Sixth and 10th streets to the city for use as a park. The company only desired $1 per year, as outlined in the lease, and the city acted immediately.
Fourth Ward City Councilman James Poulston, the chairman of the parks and recreation committee, said the property “eases the playground burden” in the area. Whittier School on Holmes Avenue was to be closed that summer for construction of a new school, so that playground would be unavailable to area children.
“Poulston noted the area was not a large one for the south part of the city, but the need has ‘long been evident’ and the project requires only a nominal amount of money,” reported a April 9, 1963, story.
City Council got to work ironing out the details. The group decided to use some playground equipment from Whittier and buy some new for the park. The park’s maintenance would be handled by the Lima-Allen County Welfare Department.
After talks with the foundry, the city ended up leasing 24 acres for the park. The 20-year lease began May 1, 1963, and was signed by Mayor William B. Nungester.
The park, which came to be known as Grandview Park, was quickly put to use. By the next summer, it was the site of a program to supplement the regular city recreation program. A story from June 5, 1964, reported there were at least 3,000 children in the area.
“The problem — a neighborhood teeming with children. Add a long, hot summer. Top with virtually no park facilities in which the children can let off steam. The result — unhappy children and parents,” the story continued.
Several groups teamed up under the banner of the Community Welfare Council to push for improvements in the park. The Mizpah Mission, now the home of the Cheryl Allen Southside Center on South Central Avenue, was out of commission.
“The park shortage became especially critical this year because Mizpah Mission, which had furnished a play area in past years, will be undergoing construction and cannot be used,” the story reported.
The group was able to get some work done, with the park now home to two baseball diamonds, a basketball court and “tot” play area. But by the next summer, the city’s goals of expanding the park and developing other parks were met with some resistance.
By this time, maintenance responsibilities had moved from the welfare department to the public works department. Public Works Director George Kruse questioned the city’s intent of adding parks, pointing out he only has five fulltime park maintenance workers with three extra hired in summer with which to do the job.
“We’re only deserving of new facilities when we take care of what we’ve got,” Kruse said in a May 9, 1965, story.
Nevertheless, Grandview Park was slated for improvements in 1965, “in an attempt to reduce tensions in the area,” a story from May 16, 1965, reported.
The lease made improvements tricky, however. The city was hampered in installing anything permanent because it didn’t own the land. They discussed making basketball courts, several ball diamonds, a football field and more picnic facilities but in the end decided to blacktop a basketball court, extend the waterline and build a temporary shelterhouse.
Mayor Homer Cooper said the park would get picnic facilities, playground equipment, shade trees and shelters in the summer of 1965.
“Indications suggested problems were arising now as bands of youngsters roved the streets, looking for something to do,” a story from May 23, 1965, reported.
Another year passed. In the spring of 1966, the city discussed expanding Schoonover Park, and Sixth Ward Councilman Paul Mullenhour objected.
“Before they build any new ball diamonds there they better take care of what they have, namely, at Grandview Park,” an April 6, 1966, story reported.
Another year passed. In winter of 1967, the park’s ball diamonds benefited from the donation of 800 tons of fill dirt. There were serious drainage problems, and the dirt was an effort to correct that. The dirt was donated to the city by Edward J. DeBartolo and Associates and was trucked over from the Lima Mall construction site.
By spring of 1967, local NAACP representative Tommie Skipworth had had enough. She warned City Council that unless “pressure is put on city officials, I’m afraid there is going to be violence. ... If we stop and accept what city council has promised us, we’d be left with what we have been all along — promises.”
The city followed with a flurry of activity. A southside park on Michael Avenue — now called Cook Park after Fred Cook who donated $100,000 to the city — was planned, and two “tot lots” were going in. One was at Fifth and Main streets, and the second was at Ninth and Union streets. Expansion of the newly annexed Grandview Park was being considered.
And then, big news: the Ohio Steel Foundry donated 18.3 acres at Grandview Park to the city, the papers reported March 13, 1968. Mayor Christian Morris vowed to start work immediately on the park, since the city could do whatever it wanted to with the land.
At that time, the city wanted to name the park Galvin Park after John F. Galvin, the board chairman at the foundry. They also entered into negotiations to buy 20 more acres east of the site.
But Galvin didn’t want his name on the park. He told the papers on March 26, 1968, that he wanted all the foundry’s workers to share in the contribution.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was slain. Just a week later, Cooper Lee Smith Jr. recommended the park be named after the civil rights leader. Smith was president of the Lima Youth Committee.
City Council took that suggestion and twisted it. Grandview Park would be Ohio Steel Foundry Park, and the “tot lot” at Ninth and Union streets would bear King’s name. Outraged, Smith handed out leaflets at the close of a city council meeting severely criticizing the city for the decision, the papers reported on June 13, 1968.
It didn’t matter. Foundry Park it was.
Mayor Morris pledged $150,000 in improvements to Foundry Park, which had been expanded by 17-plus acres by a purchase of land from Clara M. Fischel at $525 an acre. The South Lima Center would be located there, with the center run by the Salvation Army.
The next year, the city announced it would hire a landscape architect. The plan included a five-acre pond, six baseball diamonds, a playground and a tremendous number of trees and landscaping. By this time, the pledge was $50,000.
“Using the plan as a guide, the mayor said Foundry Park will be developed ‘in stages’ as money is available,” a story from Jan. 29, 1969, reported.
The pond was dug, and trouble arose. Resident Barbara Pirtle said two children fell into the pond. They were rescued successfully, but she was very concerned. She asked that the pond be watched or fenced, and if that request were denied, she threatened to fill it in with junk cars and trash.
“If these people really wanted to help as they claim, they would have given something we needed instead of forcing something on us we don’t want or need,” she said in a April 28, 1970, story.
City council tried to explain the pond was needed for drainage, but the two sides remained at odds. The papers reported no southside residents attended the dedication of the new 36-acre park, held in 1970.
The park remained closed that summer, since grading and seeding was still incomplete. Through the early 1970s, work was done at the park — little by little. The park opened in August 1973, sporting $25,000 in improvements. There was a picnic shelter, a playground and a multi-purpose court, suitable for tennis, volleyball and basketball.
Vandalism and budget crunches took their toll on further improvements, but there was a turnaround in the 1980s. On Feb. 29, 1988, Mayor Gene Joseph renamed the park to reflect the residents’ initial desire — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center Park.
Today, the major players have changed. Allen County Health Partners makes its home on Eighth Street next to the park, which now has basketball courts, a baseball diamond, shelterhouses, a playground, sledding hills, an asphalt path and more than 80 new trees.