City opens new Fishtown play area — the first funded by Philly’s soda tax

Government officials and Fishtown children cut the ribbon on Fishtown Recreation Center’s new playground. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Government officials and Fishtown children cut the ribbon on Fishtown Recreation Center’s new playground. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

Philly’s first new play area renovated with sweetened beverage tax dollars is open for business in Fishtown.

Mayor Jim Kenney cut the ribbon Tuesday on the first completed project of his beverage tax-bankrolled Rebuild initiative: a restored Fishtown Recreation Center complete with a new playground, basketball court, sprayground, and walking track.

“Through funds from the Philadelphia beverage tax, our Rebuild program will not only continue to improve our parks, recreation centers, and parks across the city but also build even stronger communities,”  Kenney said Tuesday.

The mayor celebrated the long-awaited win with neighbors and community leaders, including City Council President Darrell Clarke and officials from the Trust for Public Land, the nonprofit contracted by the city to complete the project.

As politicians spoke, children played and Fishtowners cheerfully dined on free soft pretzels, water ice, and canned La Colombe coffee.

“It looks great, I love it, I couldn’t be happier,” Susan Morris, a Fishtown resident, said. Asked about her opinion on the soda tax that was used to help pay for the renovations, she said: “I guess I’m grateful. But I don’t really follow politics.”

The rec center reopening comes years after neighbors and Trust for Public Land organizers began working on a remake of the beloved neighborhood institution.

The 48-year-old center was worn down with age and in 2017, it’s popular pool, Swimmo, closed after it started leaking into the library.  But a court battle over the soda tax tied up progress for years until finally, in 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the tax, allowing the city to begin spending its revenue and borrowing against future tax revenue.

The Fishtown Recreation Center is receiving $366,500 from the Rebuild initiative out of a total of $1.1 million being spent on rehabilitation.

“Folks I’m just so excited for this,” Clarke, whose district includes the rec center, said.  “After all the challenging things the government has to go through, this is the kind of thing that makes you want to come to work.”

Clarke can anticipate many more such ribbon cuttings in the years ahead, assuming that both he and the mayor win re-election this November. (Both are expected to easily win another four year term.) The Fishtown Recreation Center itself will receive a second ribbon cutting when work on Swimmo is complete.

The soda tax isn’t entirely safe yet, but it will probably last for the duration of Kenney’s presumed second term. Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez is a longtime foe of the legislation and last session she introduced a bill that would phase out the tax (and promote alternatives , such as a levy on plastic bags). Although the bill received support from Republicans in City Council and a handful of fellow Democrats, it did not get a hearing.

Looking even further into the future, Quiñones-Sánchez is widely believed to be contemplating a run for mayor in 2021. The soda industry pumped $631,000 into her hotly contested primary election race earlier this year.

Originally, Rebuild was anticipated to be comprised of $400 million from the soda tax’s revenues and up to $100 million from the William Penn Foundation. The total from the sweetened beverage tax has since been scaled down based on the actual revenues collected thus far.

This disclosure, the William Penn Foundation supports WHYY.

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