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VISIONS OF PAST, FUTURE FOR MLK PARK

Park activist Samuel A. Herbert looked out over the round, forlorn pad of concrete. The new snow on the surrounding grass and refurbished historic light standard in the middle of the old wading pool made the stark, flat surface seem even more out of place.

But Herbert saw something entirely different. He saw the future on a warm summer day.

"If you could just envision beach chairs, blankets, people with their bikes," he said, stretching his arm out over the flat urban landscape on a 25-degree day. "It would be a tourist attraction."

County Executive Joel A. Giambra saw a different scene -- a winter from his early youth.

Growing up in the Lakeview housing projects on the Lower West Side, he'd grab his ice skates and take them to his friend Oscar Rayford's house.

They'd impose on Oscar's mom to take them across the city to Martin Luther King Jr. Park -- then Humboldt Park -- where the boys could glide across the outdoor ice rink surrounded by hundreds of people enjoying the snowfall.

"It was a very romantic atmosphere," he recalled.

So when Giambra announced a $100,000 county grant for the first phase of restoration for the park's wading pool on Wednesday, he pinned that money to the usual things: regionalism, support for community assets and city revitalization.

But he and the park protectors who flanked him at the Buffalo Museum of Science also pinned that money to a personal hope -- that one day, their kids would walk the park and skate the ice with the same sense of joy that used to abide in this place.

"I know my son, Nick, is a hockey fanatic and will love coming to skate in the park," Giambra said.

Of course, the county money represents only about one-tenth of the total needed to complete the first phase of the wading pool restoration. But Masten Council Member Antoine Thompson said he's hopeful that all the money will be raised in time to begin construction in March.

Nearly $600,000 has been raised, with aggressive fund-raising efforts this year, Thompson said. Another $300,000 to $400,000 needs to be raised to complete the first phase of work.

That money would go toward converting the central part of the wading pool into a summer splash pad for children and adults with 16 creatively shaped water sprays to ward off the summer heat. The splash area would be large enough to accommodate hundreds, said Herbert, vice president of the Coalition to Save Martin Luther King Park.

Equipment would be built in to freeze that inner area in the winter for ice skating.

The second phase of the plan, expected to cost about $3 million, would return water and ice to the rest of the 500-foot-diameter wading pool while keeping the central water features.

With the county money now in hand, park fund-raisers say they hope to gain more dollars from state and federal sources. They said they also expect to seek out money from private donors, churches and individual county legislators.

"These are city parks, yet the county understands their value," said Deborah Trimble, executive director of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy.

She said she hopes others do the same.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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