By Fred Faust
Fred Faust, principal of The Edge Group, Inc., a real estate brokerage and consulting firm, previously was an assistant to U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas. He shares the following essay:
This is another entry in a series about people in the Greater Lowell area who have taken initiative and achieved special things. Feel free to suggest others who should be so recognized and have interesting stories to tell.
“We might be the most successful unsuccessful people you’ve ever met.”
— Kelliann Bazemore, Friends of Shedd Park
This is a story about how a neighborhood parents’ group – mostly moms with young children – made a $700,000 “splash” and created a major playground attraction at Lowell’s Shedd Park.
Recently, three of the group’s participants, Meg Chase, Carrie Carolan, and Kelliann Bazemore, gathered to recall a story that begun some ten years ago with a simple question from a friend from Andover: “Why do you put up with a playground that’s so awful?” When they took a closer look at the old monkey bars, asphalt base, and the long metal slides that sent children hurtling to the ground – or burnt them on hot days – they agreed it was a “disaster.”
Bazemore, Carolyn and Chase were among a group of 13 parents with young children who decided to tackle that question themselves. As neighbors in Belvidere, they spent a lot of time on the ball fields at Shedd Park. The group, mostly moms, started with the modest goal of replacing a “decrepit and dangerous playground,” according to Chase.
Today, Shedd Park is a destination for reasons other than just the ball fields or tennis courts. The historic pavilion has been restored. In the summer, children whoop, laugh, and dance through the water jets of the varied Splash Pad features. Children of all ages and physical abilities can also take advantage of the imaginative and colorful playground next door. Covered picnic tables are present as well for moms and dads trying to keep up with their energetic children.
How the group surpassed their goal goes back to Kelliann Bazemore’s definition of success and the commitment of the group. “We were like the little train that could. We just kept on chugging along.” The group actually gained momentum early on because of their history of working together, affection for Lowell as a community and formed partnerships.
“While a couple of people looked at us funny, and said, Oh, you want to build a park, good luck with that,” Bazemore remembers, the group’s familiarity and contacts within the city “made all the difference.”
The Moms and the Marketing Guy
Rob Fardin was also a neighbor and part of the parents group, but had professional marketing credentials as well. This included an MBA in Sports Management from the University of Oregon. Fardin and his wife had two young children at the time. His counsel was “think big.”
Fardin recalls, “I said, if you want to run a golf tournament, I’m out of here. If you want to run a bake sale (one of the original ideas), that’s going to be a lot of cake and cookies.” He advised them to go local and to use ideas and themes that would be successful in attracting attention and building a loyal audience.
It was mostly us women and Rob,” says Bazemore. According to Carolan, “he contributed all of the crazy, creative ideas.”
“Well, for example, I saw that everyone loved Dancing with the Stars,” says Fardin. One of the first so-called “crazy” ideas was to draft famous local “stars” and to hold the contest at the much neglected pavilion at Shedd Park. Thus, the Cotillion at the Pavilion was born. Fardin not only named it, sketched the invitation, but went out to the pavilion and with volunteers cleaned a fireplace that likely hadn’t been cleaned for several decades.
Fardin, the sports marketing guy, attributes the group’s success, using a “team” analogy.
“We came together as a team. You have to in order to be successful. We just said it was time to do something for the community and to think big. Kelliann and I, we actually went to grade school together and she was great. So I just said, at the meeting, This is what we need to do. We need to start with $100,000. I mean how many bake sales can you do? It was pretty quiet for a moment there. I challenged them to think bigger. Hey, the people will come out and support it. I’m a believer in copying things that work, I mean, don’t reinvent the wheel, retread it.”
Fardin’s large vision also included keeping people focused on the park and its needs. “Find your lane,” he intones. “Find something related to what you’re doing. So they focused on the park and their retread was a local version of “Dancing with the Stars.”
Dancing with the Stars
Amazingly, the so-called Cotillion at the Pavilion attracted some 400 attendees. “It was fun and talked about,” according to Fardin, “including several articles in the Lowell Sun. We grossed $30,000 at one event. It was our big Oh My God! moment. By the time the next year came around, people were asking, when are you going to do that again?”
Meg Chase described that first night as taking place in a driving and chilly rain. Setting up that afternoon, they wondered if anyone at all would attend. The pavilion is open on the sides and offered little protection. “Fortunately, someone came up with the idea of getting giant posters to decorate,” said Chase, “that was the only thing that saved us. It saved the event.”
In fact, the attendance was amazing. That first year a dazzling champion also emerged on the dance floor. A good humored City Councilor Rita Mercier and partner swept to victory. Despite the weather, it had been a great night for all, and the Lowell Sun followed with an article that caught people’s attention and imagination. The event was repeated for three years straight. It was continuously successful and produced other memorable scenes; a poignant father-daughter dance team of Connie and the late Larry Martin, as well as the bravado of local business person James O’Donnell channeling John Travolta in very tight white suit. What more can you say about a prominent funeral director dancing to the song “Staying Alive?”
This was the just start of continuing publicity and several unintentionally comic experiences. This included a near frozen Santa (Rob’s dad), a failed Guinness World Record stunt involving not quite enough water pistols, and a Winterfest float that suffered black outs and mechanical failures and sent Rob Fardin to the store for flashlights to try to save the day.
Friends of Shedd
During an earlier fundraising effort, Bazemore had been introduced to Thomas Bellegarde, the City’s Commissioner of Parks and Recreation. Everyone involved in the efforts at Shedd mentions Bellegarde. “He was incredibly helpful and positive.” Bellegarde enlisted early, cut through red tape and championed the endeavor. He helped to rally the local legislative delegation that ultimately won a major complementary grant. Former City Manager Bernie Lynch and a number of private citizens such as John and Linda Chemaly stepped forward in support. Nancye Tuttle and the late Mary Sampas of the Lowell Sun contributed articles about events that built momentum and credibility.
Many other events followed. The women laughed as they remembered “frozen Santa’s” at the Shedd Pavilion and frostbitten volunteers as their Winterfest float went dark before its scheduled cruise down Merrimack Street. They dispatched Fardin to purchase multiple flashlights. They also knocked on doors, conducted silent auctions, organized raffles, and found various other ways to solicit funds for the project.
The Shedd legacy was also used a rallying point. In 1910, Freeman B. Shedd bequeathed 50 acres to the City of Lowell and added an endowment of $100,000 to develop fields and other enhancements in order to create “Shedd Park.” The first condition of his letter, referring to the land, stated:
“That it shall forever be used as a park and recreation or playground for the citizens and children of the City of Lowell, and for no other purpose.”
In addition to the legacy argument, the group stressed the condition of the playground and now closed swimming pool, which engineers had determined was beyond repair. Within the first two years alone, the group surprised itself with the extent of their fundraising. They had brought in nearly $200,000. This inspired them to do even more. Lowell had been successful in attracting funds for a Cawley Stadium remake, including new turf. They worked with State delegation members. “Those relationships were key,” says Bazemore. They were eventually awarded an “amazing” grant of $500,000. The new grant allowed the park improvements to include the addition of the Splash Pad. Not only were they having unexpected success, “As a group,” says Chase, “We had fun. We learned. It was like a sounding board. I think this is where people got their feet wet.”
Looking back, Bazemore says, “Our kids are older and we’ve gone on to other things, community things. But we’re all still involved and friends. The great thing was it was really about building relationships and making things happen.”
Chase agrees, “Everybody had different strengths. We shared responsibilities and everyone had something they did to contribute. It all came together in the end.” Chase also gives a lot of the thematic credit to Fardin. “If it wasn’t for Rob and his crazy ideas, big ideas, and a background in marketing, we might not have been successful.”
Of course, Fardin disagrees on the factors that defined success. “What made this group successful is that they were willing to get out of their comfort zones. Who wants to ask for money? Hey, know your lane. Ask yourself, what can you do well at? What is going to help draw attention to what you want to do? Think big ideas that raise exposure, stand out, and try to do something new and interesting.” He repeats again, “This was about teamwork.”
Bazemore attributes the group’s success to other factors as well. She describes “an underlying pride in Lowell” and the desire to help Lowell succeed. Her advice to others is to “Write down ideas. Ask for help. In this city, you’ll get it. If someone sent me an invitation for a fundraiser for a playground, I’d really feel that I’d have to go. I mean anything to keep improving our city. I think we’re all rooted in the city and we want our kids to do well here and to want to come back.”
Freeman Shedd’s last condition for acceptance of the land by the City of Lowell, stated that he should have the “right to erect… a suitable gateway and entrance, with a tablet or tablets thereon with the following transcription: “Shedd Playground. A gift to the City of Lowell by Freeman Ballard Shedd, A.D. 1910.”
The Belvidere neighbors’ group and their friends have also made a “suitable addition” to Lowell’s largest and most famous park. No doubt that Mr. Shedd, watching the trials, tribulations, and ultimate success of the group, would be appreciative of their efforts to make Shedd Park and Lowell a better place.