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EMPIRE a park for all ages

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Todd Mizener

Since it was built in 1995, EMPIRE Park, a maze of tunnels, slides and swings in 48 play stations connected by wooden ramps and bridges, has attracted about 20,000 people a year.

EAST MOLINE -- It's a wooden wonderland, a super playground partially designed by East Moline children and built by their parents.

Since its construction in 1995, East Moline Playground Innovative Recreation Effort (EMPIRE) has grown from a maze of tunnels, slides and swings into a recreational complex for children and adults.

``The park is so popular, on any given weekend we have more requests for reservations for the shelters than we can accommodate,'' Ben Zmuda, East Moline Park Board chairman, said. ``On the first weekday after New Year's Day, they have people standing in line down at the park offices to put in reservations for the shelters, for their summer reunions.''

The playground, on Illinois 84 between East Moline and Hampton, is in the former Mississippi Park. Last year, East Moline renamed the park ``EMPIRE Park'' a reflection of the playground's popularity.

The park's unique layout and equipment make it one of the greatest in the Quad-Cities and a popular destination for visitors.

``It's not unusual to have several cars with out-of-state license plates in the parking lot,'' Mr. Zmuda said. ``We have busloads of children visit. It's used by several schools for field trips and other school trips.''

He estimated 20,000 people visit EMPIRE annually.

EMPIRE has 48 play stations, many connected by wooden ramps and bridges. It includes an earthquake walk, a moving balance beam, a sliding T-bar, musical pipes and a moving platform.

The playground also features a telephone system of listening stations connected by 50 feet of underground plastic tubing.

Adding to EMPIRE park's attractions are amenities for adults such as trees, picnic tables, park shelters, kiosks and a rolle bolle court. A dock, equipped with benches for comfortable seating, overlooks the Mississippi River.

``The park is a quality-of-life benefit,'' Mr. Zmuda said. ``It's used for family gatherings, for wedding receptions -- it's the kind of place where parents or grandparents can take the children to play.''

The idea of a wooden playground began taking shape in the early 1990s. While visiting from Des Moines, Mr. Zmuda's daughter, Diane Zmuda Haughwood, tried to convince her father that plastic, modular play equipment planned by the park board was not what children wanted.

Instead, she pushed for a large wood playground like the one her family visited in Des Moines. Eventually, her father and the park board decided wood was the way to go and started a massive fundraising drive.

While the adults raised money, children planned the playground. Sixty students from the city's elementary schools were selected in a ``design-the-playground'' contest, and their ideas were incorporated in the schematic drawings of EMPIRE prepared by an Ithaca, N.Y., architectural firm.

In September 1995, with $80,000 raised to cover materials and architecture costs, construction of EMPIRE began. Within five days, 1,300 volunteers had raised the 14,000-square-foot structure.

New attractions will be in place when children return to EMPIRE Park this spring, Mr. Zmuda said. Site preparation is scheduled for a third shelter, which will be funded through proceeds of concessions sales from ``Ride the River.'' A new kiosk also is scheduled for the rolle bolle club, joining a river-mapping kiosk added last year by River Action.

-- By Rebecca Morris (January 22, 1998)

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