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Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2008 11:27 pm

How to build partnerships

Two Springfield dynamos turn the community’s vision for an “all-abilities” park into reality

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Southwind Park’s Butch Elzea and Diane Mathis
PHOTO BY AMANDA ROBERT

It's not often that you come across a real-life dynamic duo, but the Springfield community says that Butch Elzea and Diane Mathis are it.

For the past 20 months the pair has met with businesses, nonprofit agencies, and academic organizations from all across the capital city and convinced them that the Edwin Watts Southwind Park — an 80-acre "all-abilities" multiuse venue located near the intersection of Interstate 55 and Toronto Road — is a project that they should get behind. In a short time Elzea and Mathis have raised nearly $14 million, formed a diverse range of partnerships, and launched the first phase of the park's construction.

Ray Roland, president of Roland Machinery Co., got involved, he says, "right out of the chute" in November 2006, when Elzea — whom he calls a lifelong friend — asked him to help with the park's lake. Not only did Roland donate the construction equipment, he also recruited apprentices from Operating Engineers Local Union No. 965 to build it and Halverson Construction to oversee the project. Since then, Roland says, he's watched as Elzea and Mathis have approached every group in town, large and small, and encouraged them to jump on board.

"Butch Elzea and Diane Mathis have been the driving force behind this thing — they work it, work it, work it," Roland says. "This is a big deal. Someone has to be driving the train, and these guys are doing it."

Asked how they've done it, the two are modest. Mathis answers: "We may spark the fire, but all of the flames aren't because of us."

Elzea says he's not sure how it happened, but somehow the "moons have aligned." When you know enough people in the community, he explains, it's easy to sell a worthwhile project.

For Elzea, it doesn't get any more worthwhile. His daughter Erin, who had been confined to a wheelchair, died at the age of 17 in 2000. Earlier this year Elzea sold his central-Illinois NAPA auto-parts stores so he and his wife, Chris, could focus solely on constructing a park that would meet anyone's needs.

"We made enough money in the auto-parts business, but that wasn't a good enough focus," Elzea says. "Two years ago we really got into this. We had a special child, and there are a lot of people who have special children, parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters. This seemed like the right thing to do."

Mathis came on board with the Springfield Park District specifically to help raise funds for Southwind Park. She commends the park district and its board of trustees and says the project wouldn't have gotten off the ground without their willingness to try something new.

"We have found a lot of different parks, a lot of facilities that are universally accessible, and their focus is the same as ours," Mathis says. "We share a vision — but not to this level of developing 80 acres and all these recreational opportunities."

The park district initially pledged $7 million to Southwind through special recreation-tax funds and general-obligation and revenue bonds and will expand its programming to include a special-recreation department. The new agency will be located in Erin's Pavilion, a 15,000-square-foot building that will also serve as the park's welcome center. The pavilion, dedicated to Elzea's daughter, will be one of 38 buildings in the world to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum certification for its renewable-energy efforts.

Mathis also praises the park district's many partners — from the Hope Institute for Children and Families to Selvaggio Steel — for all of their contributions. It's progressive thinking at its best, Mathis says, to see public entities, private businesses, academic organizations, and community-service groups pulling together for one cause.

Terry Farmer, owner of Terry Farmer Photography, is another partner who has been involved since the get-go. He wanted to help with marketing efforts, so he took photographs of all of the people who had donated to Southwind in some way and created a design that has been used on posters, postcards, and even billboards in Springfield. Farmer has also taken monthly aerial shots of the park to help Elzea and Mathis demonstrate its progress to potential partners and donors.

Farmer's latest contribution brings a few others in the mix. He recently purchased Schlosser's Country Garden, a historical greenhouse operation, on Old Jacksonville Road. Because he has no need for the greenhouse equipment, Farmer donated it to the Capital Area Career Center. The equipment will be installed in the center's now-defunct greenhouse, and master gardeners will step in to oversee the growing of plants, which will eventually be transferred to Southwind Park.

Farmer says his business has helped several area nonprofits raise funds, but they've never been involved to this degree. He doesn't see his involvement stopping anytime in the near future, he adds.

"It's such a one-of-a-kind park," Farmer says. "It's good for our community, it's good for business, and it's a good draw for people all over central Illinois."

It is estimated that the Edwin Watts Southwind Park, named for a pioneer who owned the land in 1901, will cost $30 million. Set to open in 2009, it will include a 2.5-mile urban pathway, an outdoor amphitheater and stage, a children's museum, an indoor recreation/sports complex, sensory gardens, picnic areas, three playgrounds, a great lawn, sports courts, one of the world's largest windmills, and a Bellagio-style waltzing-waters fountain.

Elzea and Mathis say Southwind's level of accessibility will rival that of parks across the country and possibly change the way of thinking in Springfield. A few of its innovative features include a super tram for intrapark transportation, a color-coded navigation system for people with cognitive disabilities, and respite centers with heated/air-conditioned breezeways and shower facilities.

"This is maybe the second-biggest thing that Springfield is going to have," Elzea says. "The Lincoln Museum and Library really changed the attitude of the community, and hopefully this park will do the same thing as a national model."

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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