Swissvale's Center For Creative Play is closing Monday


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Mitchell Case got teary yesterday when he heard that the Center For Creative Play will be closed as of Monday.

The center is an important place to 4-year-old Mitchell because he has cerebral palsy, and the accessibility of the area makes it easy for him to play there.

The design of the center, which was built in a former supermarket, allowed children with disabilities to play alongside children without disabilities.

The center also had an extra wheelchair, a walker and crutches for children to try.

That meant there were times when Mitchell's mother, Elizabeth Case of Churchill, would turn around and find another child playing on Mitchell's wheelchair while he used his walker. At the center, her 2-year-old daughter, Mia, could just run if she wanted to.

The Center For Creative Play opened in 1995 in Station Square in space sublet from Louise Child Care after a group of five mothers of children with disabilities decided that their children needed a place to play with other children. But when Louise Child Care left Station Square, the center had to either close or move.

The board decided to move and, before it reopened in the former Foodland in Swissvale, the center had raised about half of the $4 million it needed for renovations, including $400,000 from the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development.

The news release sent out by the center to announce the closing did not give a reason, and Jason Kunzman, the president of the board of directors, would not elaborate.

Mara Kaplan, the former executive director who was fired by the board in September, and the last of the group of mothers who started the organization to remain involved, said the center was always on the edge financially.

"We were in money squeezes for 12 years," she said. "There were plenty of times we were going to run out of money."

The center did bring in money to run the 15,000-square-foot play area by renting out space in the building, producing and selling a line of children's music CDs called Time to Play, and running a consulting firm to advise other organizations about how to create an accessible play space. The center worked with other nonprofits to help them develop spaces in Buffalo, Cleveland, West Virginia and Michigan.

Tax filings from 2006 show that the building had a $1.6 million mortgage and that the organization was making $1,280 monthly payments for a computer server that were to continue until November and payments of $195 for a fryer that was going to be paid off next month.

Tenants of the building, who were trying to find out what was happening yesterday, were left wondering if they would be open on Monday.

"There are 44 children and their families who depend on us," said Kristie Hamilton, the executive director of Interplay Child Care Center, a nonprofit child-care center that leases space in the bottom of the building but has had access to the Creative Play area as an indoor playground. She said she has called the Center for Creative Play and her leasing agent, but no one has given her a definite answer.

Yesterday, as word spread that the Center for Creative Play was closing, parents and children were sorry to hear the news.

Becky Mingo, whose two children use hearing aids, said the space was great because the carpeting kept the din of so many children from overwhelming her boys, 5 and 4.

"You could drive cars in it and roll balls around it." Ms. Mingo said.

Children used the mats and blocks to make their own obstacle courses and the art room to try out their talents.

Parents appreciated being able to sit down and talk to each other without having to keep their children always within arm's reach.

"It felt like a death in the family," was how Nicole Ricker of Wilkins described hearing of the center closing. Ms. Ricker's husband is in the military and often away, so she said she brings her two sons, Quentin, 2 and Jack, 1, to the center, which they called "play park" at least once a week.

"We are just very sad," she said, "very, very sad."

Doug Baker, of Edgewood, said his 13-month-old son, Kent, really enjoyed the music room, describing his piano stylings as "minimalist and repetitive."

"He had his first birthday party there." Mr. Baker said. "That was a great place for birthday parties."

Heather Scrivner-Mediate, a spokeswoman for the center, said some people who have events scheduled have already received phone calls from the center and all members will be receiving letters. "Those with deposits down also will be receiving checks in the mail."

This weekend, Mrs. Case said, she plans to take her children to the center for the last time "and say our goodbyes."


Ann Belser can be reached at abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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