Kids enjoy the opening of Ontario's splash pad. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon)

If smiles could be cashed in, Ontario would be a rich city right now. The opening of the water features last week at Lions Park was a time of pure joy. The weather was just right, the political speeches were short, and the kids in swimsuits abundant.

Tipping that big bucket of water in a sense washed away all the stresses and strains behind the splash pad. None of the history mattered last Thursday – none of the bickering among adults, none of the fretting over delays, none of the worry about money.

This was a project years in the making and evidence of how citizens can influence government. The closure of the Ontario Aquatic Center set the stage, and in 2016 a local group formed to do something about that closure. Friends of the Aquatic Center came up with ambitious plans for the pool and then the splash park. Megan Cook endured, pushed and pleaded for the park, and deserves public credit for not letting the nettles that came her way poke holes in the dream.

City officials reacted to the community insistence that Ontario needed something for kids and families. So did people around the area. The city dipped into the treasury for $353,000 and then chased down a $300,000 state grant to help. Locally, donors gave more than $185,000 in cash and another $46,000 in contributed goods and services.

So, last summer, the first pieces of the splash park toys came off the freight truck. A big blue mushroom cap – really, a giant shower – was among the parts.

Along the way, a grassroots movement took over what Cook and her crew had started, leading to last year’s successful formation of the Ontario Recreation District. The district will soon take over the splash spark, set to work on the pool complex, and reverse years of neglect and, for kids, boredom. 

The Ontario City Council provided one last gift just before the grand opening – dropping the idea of charging admission to the splash park. It’s hard to imagine going to that park and seeing kids who couldn’t afford to get in gazing longingly through the chain link fence. Now, that’s not a view anyone will ever have to see.

And if you doubted the value of the project, you just needed to spend a few moments watching last week. Gleeful toddlers stomped in the water. Youngsters chased each other about. Moms and dads relaxing, watchful. The blend of squeals and splashes produced the sound of success.

Ontario and Malheur County have challenges, and always will. But the splash park is a symbol of what a caring community can accomplish when adults start being adults and they let kids be kids. To all those involved in ways large and small, take a bow. This was a job, in the end, well done.

– LZ 

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