LARGO — When the Largo City Commission came close to creating an ordinance that would’ve prevented children older than 12 from freely using certain areas of Largo Central Park’s playground last summer, several officials stepped in and spoke out against creating such a restrictive piece of local legislation.

“I spoke to as many people, as many demographics as I could find that would be affected by this, and I cannot, for any reason, find a reason that we need to have this,” Commissioner Jamie Robinson said in June 2021 amid a series of meetings on the topic. “I understand that it can be a problem, but I see way too many consequences coming from this than the problem that it would resolve.”

Commissioner Eric Gerard called the proposed ordinance, which passed on first reading by a vote of 4-3, “overkill” and said he did not support something that would “criminalize teenagers. I don’t want to put them in a situation where they have to be confronted by a law enforcement officer.”

Former Largo code enforcement manager Tracey Schofield, who founded the nonprofit Police and Kids Foundation in 2011, was in the audience for the second and final reading of the ordinance, and the longtime former law enforcement officer agreed with Gerard’s suggestion they find an alternative solution. 

“I was at the second reading of the ordinance, and I heard anybody 13 or older would be banned from parts of the playground,” Schofield said recently. “So, that was a problem for me.”

Schofield contacted commissioners after that meeting, where the item was pushed back following a 3-3 vote, and began formulating a plan to create a special teen section of the park through his nonprofit, which is funded by sales of Florida’s Fallen Law Enforcement Officer specialty license plates. The result of those efforts was unveiled during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Oct. 8 for the Shorai teen section of the park.

“We can always do an ordinance. That’s easy,” Schofield said after the ceremony, which was attended by dozens of Largo residents and officials, including Mayor Woody Brown, commissioners Robinson, Gerard and Donna Holck and Largo Police Chief Jeffrey Undestad. “It’s trying to think outside the box and find a solution that takes time and effort.”

Schofield, who retired in June following a 33-year career as a civil servant and police officer, said after the ordinance failed to pass on second reading that he would donate $50,000 toward the creation of the Shourai, which, appropriately, means “future” in Japanese.

That donation ultimately rose to $67,000 when construction and playground equipment costs skyrocketed during the pandemic, pushing the price of the new section north of $80,000. But Schofield said it was worth it to see the culmination of such a unique collaboration between the city, his nonprofit, and local teens who helped design the facility though the Largo Youth Leadership Council.

“These are the ones that make you feel good,” he said, noting he’s been traveling around the state since he retired, donating equipment and money to small police departments. “It’s really changed how we’re doing things.”

After cutting the ribbon, Mayor Brown said the Shourai is a great example of different groups working together for a common cause.

“Sometimes we get presented with ideas and there’s a better idea on the cusp, and so we got the better idea in this case,” he said. It was “such a cool idea that involved the Youth Leadership Council in helping to plan it … and Tracey, who, unsolicited, said he could make up the difference in the cost. So, it’s just an amazing collaboration.”

Robinson, who spearheaded the Youth Leadership Council six years ago, said working on the park’s design was the ideal project for the group. 

“When I was elected, one of the things I knew we didn’t have a good perspective from was teens,” he said as he surveyed the new area with Merissa Carlisle, Largo Public Library’s teen librarian, and Kara Piehl, the city’s special events coordinator. “And I firmly believe that the decisions that the city council makes will affect those kids probably more than they will affect me, because those things don’t come into play until 10, 15, 20 years down the road. So, I wanted to start finding a way we could get that perspective.”

The impact the Shourai, which is tucked behind the bathroom building in the main part of the park under a canopy of shade trees, was felt immediately, as groups of teens — and adults and younger kids, as the area is not age restricted — began occupying every part of the carefully designed spot.

“This is what they wanted,” Carlisle said. Everything from the tetherball to the backpack hooks on the tables to the funky seating apparatus that at one point had kids sitting on each one of its sloped sides, was suggested by the LYLC. “You have to give them a seat at the table. You have to inspire them.”

“I think this is the best project our city has ever done in collaboration with other groups,” Piehl added. “Because they said we want to create this teen area, but we want you guys to use and you to design it.”