All-access playground opens in Watsessing

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BLOOMFIELD / EAST ORANGE, NJ — Essex County was highlighted at Watsessing Park in Bloomfield on Friday, July 26, as local, county and state officials commemorated the opening of the first all-access children’s playground in the Essex County Parks System, as well as the opening of a new township community center nearby; both facilities are located on Conger Avenue. An audience of approximately 150 people turned out to hear numerous speakers laud the efforts of Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. in creating the new space.

The community center was designed by Comito Associates of Newark for $145,000 and built by The Shauger Group Inc. of East Orange, for $2 million. Speaking for the builders, Don Shauger said he was thankful for the community center project because it put Essex County people to work.

The playground was designed by Remington and Vernick Engineers from Secaucus for $65,000. Picerno Giordano Construction from Kenilworth built the playground for $1.4 million. Speaking for the playground builders, Rich Picerno said the project was done on time and under budget, two criteria that are the first considerations when doing business in Essex County.

“I’m out here every day because of the children,” Picerno said. “This is not a play area. It’s a sacred area.”

With children in an ADA-accessible playground and seniors in the community center, he said everyone can have fun.

“There’s no restriction for anyone,” he said. “That’s how it should be for children. And adults will learn from children.”

Overcome with emotion, Picerno said there was a child in his family on the autism spectrum, so, “This project was near and dear to my heart.” 

Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders President Brendan Gill said the project was important to him since he once lived in Bloomfield and visited Watsessing Park with his family.

Speaking about the community center, Bloomfield Mayor Michael Venezia said DiVincenzo at first wanted only to rehabilitate the facility.

“Thank goodness it couldn’t be saved,” Venezia said. 

The mayor also acknowledged the Friends of Watsessing Park, a Bloomfield conservancy group, for increasing the benefits of the park. Conservancy President Jennifer Preziotti Gamble said her group wanted the park serve everyone. When her son, Asher, was given an opportunity to speak, he said he loves all the new things to climb and slide down in the playground.

Democratic Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, who represents the 28th District, said the location where the new facilities now stand was a dead zone back in 2003. The 28th District includes Bloomfield, Glen Ridge and other Essex County municipalities.

“Joe tries to make everyone in the county feel equal,” he said of DiVincenzo. “I saw progress as a freeholder and it’s been tremendous.”

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat who represents the 29th District, said Watsessing Park has become a place for “a glorious staycation” — a vacation for people remaining at home — and a place where children of all physical abilities can play together. The 29th District includes Belleville and Newark.

“Recreation saves lives,” she said. “When you bring children from across the sector, that is how they learn.” 

Senate President Stephen Sweeney said that whenever he talks to DiVincenzo, it is because the county executive needs money. Sweeney represents District 3, which includes municipalities in Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties.

“Look at how the money was used,” he said. “You got it right, Joe. We want kids with disabilities to be with kids without disabilities. That is how they learn.”

Sweeney said knowledge removes the silence surrounding disabilities. He noted at one time there were no playgrounds for disabled children.

“Look at how far we’ve come,” he said. 

Watsessing Park, the fourth largest park in the Essex County Parks System, is 69.67 acres. It is located in Bloomfield and East Orange.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver told the audience that she is a resident of East Orange who lives across the street from Watsessing Park. She said that at one time the county parks were in terrible shape. But when serving as freeholder president, DiVincenzo said would change that once he became county executive. He was elected county executive in 2003.

“He left no one behind,” Oliver said. “All facilities are equitable. Parks build family memories. Now people who have been shut out from other places of recreation have a place to come.”

The final speaker was DiVincenzo. He said no one can do it alone and that he received support from the county freeholders, Sweeney and Gov. Phil Murphy.

“I wanted the first all-access playground,” he said. “This will not be the last all-access playground.”

Following the ribbon-cutting, DiVincenzo told The Independent Press that if he were to have a legacy, he hoped it would be for the teamwork that helps him realize his visions. He alluded to Oliver’s remark that he has tried to touch everyone since being elected as county executive 17 years ago. His projects, he said, always keep in mind three goals: quality of life; economic development and improved property values.

Photos by Daniel Jackovino