Northgate Park in Lauderdale Lakes is more than just a park with basketball courts and slides -- it's 8-year-old Jordan James' ``secret spy'' training ground. It's where 12-year-old Ashley Ruid comes after school rather than going home to an empty house. It's the place Richie Dugazon, 25, credits with keeping him out of trouble and helping him turn around his life.
``Man, had it not been for the park, I don't even know if I would be here today,'' said Dugazon, as he watched his 5-year-old daughter Gabrielle run around the jungle gym at Northgate.
Northgate is one of three new parks to open in Lauderdale Lakes in the past three years, all part of a $7.5 million investment to increase recreational spaces in the four-mile-wide city. From a wheelchair-accessible playground at Willie Webb Park, to a butterfly garden at Cypress Preserve Park, the city now has five parks that provide a green escape in an urban backdrop.
For all its efforts, Lauderdale Lakes is being honored for having one of the top parks programs in the nation, landing on KaBoom's ``Playful City USA'' list for a second consecutive year.
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While 92 other locations were also honored by the national nonprofit -- including Coral Gables, Miami Lakes and Parkland -- Lauderdale Lakes, a city in central Broward County made up of mostly Jamaican and other Caribbean immigrants, takes particular pride in the honor.
``It makes you feel good that the place you're raising your children is getting noticed as a good place, '' said Sam Jacques, as he watched his 7-year-old daughter play with friends at Northgate.
In 2005, Lauderdale Lakes residents approved taxing themselves in order to open a $15 million bond to pay for a huge parks project. At the time, the city only had two parks and had to get by on a roughly $3.6 million parks budget, compared to, say, Coral Gables, which spends nearly twice that.
Among the items the bond money helped fund: a swimming pool complex, a two-story community center on Oakland Park Boulevard that will serve as a library, a butterfly park and playground equipment for children with disabilities.
Dugazon grew up in Lauderdale Lakes and credits the parks with keeping him out of trouble while his mother worked. His family often moved from apartment to apartment trying to stay afloat financially, but he remembers the one constant he could always count on.
``Everyone at the park almost saw it like a way out,'' Dugazon said. ``The guys wanted to join the football teams, get a scholarship, just have a better life.''
Lauderdale Lakes' investment in its park system comes at a time when cities are slashing their budgets, often cutting back on park hours and shutting down programs.
``We tend to get bogged down and think since play is fun it must not be important, but it really is a fundamental part of a child's development,'' said Alison Risso, spokeswoman for KaBoom.
The city has also set up a tutoring and mentoring program called SPARKS, cultivated a community garden at Webb Park where residents can pick vegetables and fruit, and hosts an annual community resource fair where more than 2,500 backpacks with school supplies are handed out.
Aside from play time, students spend several hours in math, science and reading courses to prep them for the upcoming school year.