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An inclusive community

Crosier Park is the site of a planned inclusive playground, made possible through the collaboration of the Hastings Parks and Recreation Department and the Hastings Community Foundation, as well as local donors.

Representatives of the two organizations welcomed the public to an announcement about the project Wednesday afternoon at Crosier Park on the site where the playground will be located.

An inclusive playground will provide a sensory-rich environment that enables children of all abilities to engage physically and socially in a supportive environment. It will include slides, swings, climbing features, interactive spinners and roller tables, accessible ramps and interactive music features.

The playground is intended for children ages 0-12.

Many of the playground’s features will be shaded.

The $850,000 project will be funded with $700,000 from the Parks and Recreation Department’s sales tax fund and $100,000 from the Hastings Community Foundation’s Key Society.

Key Society membership is open to anyone who cares about Hastings with an annual membership cost of $250.

After seeing a need for such a project in Hastings, the organizations determined that the open space at Crosier Park would allow for the development of the playground, shelter and restrooms.

The park stretches from 13th to 14th streets between Pine and California avenues.

There also will be 42 parking stalls, eight of which will be handicapped-accessible.

Jeff Hassenstab, Hastings Parks and Recreation director, said there was a need at Crosier Park for amenities such as restrooms.

“When we kind of started looking for space, this was ideal because it was underutilized, and so it became apparent that this was a great place to put this,” he said.

It also improves a park on the east side of Hastings.

Hassenstab said the new playground will be at least twice as big as the new Brickyard Park playground in the southwest part of town.

“This entire scope is going to be a large, full area,” he said.

While it’s possible to have an inclusive playground that is small, the parks department had big plans.

“If we were going to do this project we wanted it to be a destination park,” Hassenstab said. “We felt if we were going to make this hit all needs and everything we needed it to do, let’s make this big. It’s got a big space.”

He is thankful for the Key Society’s involvement. This will be the third Parks Department project involving the Key Society during Hassenstab’s time in Hastings, following the Libs Park splash pad and Lincoln Park pavilion.

Dan Peters, executive director of Hastings Community Foundation, referred to the new playground as a showpiece during an interview after Wednesday’s announcement and said it is a way to connect members of the community.

“One hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money, and I think we are so honored that we’re able to work with the Key Society and our members to be able to actively look for projects where we can have a real impact and be able to step forward and partner with the parks department in this case and say, ‘Yes, we like it but we want it to be more’ and we see potential and value in making it bigger and what that means for the community,” he said. “We want to help achieve that. It’s a rewarding experience for the Key Society, and I think our members find they can make a very modest annual investment and the outcome is something like this, which is pretty powerful.”

Additional funding support will come from the John Harrington Memorial Fund and the Jackie Ortegren Memorial Fund.

“My mom was a kindergarten teacher for years and just always loved being around kids and really just watching kids play,” Kirk Ortegren said Wednesday. “So something all-inclusive like this where all the kids can play and nice areas for people to sit and just watch them play, I think that’s exactly what my mom would want her memorial money to go to.”

Jackie Ortegren died April 21, 2017. She taught at Wallace Elementary for 27 years.

Kirk was joined at the announcement by his father, Gail, as well as wife, Jami, and children Aden, 18; Jack, 14; and Lucy, 8.

The inclusive playground is meaningful to the Ortegren family also because Jack is in a wheelchair.

“Sometimes there’s handicapped-accessible things and then there’s regular playgrounds, but they are separate,” Kirk said. “Sure, there’s things Jack can do, but his friends all want to do stuff over here. So the all-inclusive concept is something we’ve always hoped for. So even if Jack is not on the equipment, he can be by the equipment, around the equipment, playing with his friends.”

Barb Harrington said her late husband, John, who died June 10, 2019, would be excited about the planned playground.

“He spent a lot of time being excluded,” she said. “His big story was he would always be pulled over to a local park in Grand Island by his brother and sister and maybe some wonderful friends of his when he was a kid in a little red wagon. He would just be parked along the side and then the kids could play, swing, play on the slides — do all kinds of things — but he could only sit there kind of in the hot burning sun in the wagon, hoping they would eventually come and find him and pull him home. He struggled with cerebral palsy all his life, but he never let it define him and did many wonderful things because that’s who he was. He would be really happy about this because I’m sure he sat on the sidelines in that wagon watching those kids go down the slides.”

Phase 1 of the project, which includes the parking and playground, is expected to break ground in spring and finish in summer of 2021. Phase 2, which includes the restrooms and shelter, is expected to break ground in the fall of 2021.

The entire project is expected to be completed in the spring or summer of 2022.

“This is an especially meaningful project because the community has been involved in every step,” Peters said. “It was community members who first identified this as a need, it was the community that funded the project and it’ll be the community who will enjoy it. The Hastings Community Foundation is so proud to be a partner in transitioning this project from idea to a feature that will be enjoyed by families for years to come.”

Softball spectators appreciate outfield seating

Spectators seemed to appreciate the change in seating arrangements made as the Nebraska state high school softball tournament began Wednesday at the Bill Smith Softball Complex.

Tournament organizers with the Nebraska School Activities Association allowed fans to bring in chairs and sit in the outfield as part of the health guidelines developed for the tournament due to the ongoing novel coronavirus disease pandemic. Sections of the bleachers were marked off to promote social distancing.

Organizers used net fencing and painted lines to designate the play area of the outfield from the space spectators could occupy. A sign warned those in the outfield to be wary of home runs and foul balls. Some spectators sat in lawn chairs along the fences around each field.

Justin Kuntz of Crete thought it was a good decision to open the outfield for spectators.

“It allieviates some of the spacing issues,” he said. “Sometimes when so many people are by the bleachers or dugouts, it’s hard to see.”

Another modification was seen in how tickets to the tournament were sold.

Ticket sales were handled exclusively on mobile devices this year, using the GoFan digital ticket app. Attendees presented virtual tickets at the gate, and volunteers validated the tickets for entry. There weren’t any cash sales at the gate.

It was the third year attending the state tournament for Clint Solano of Lincoln, and he said it was the best yet.

“I do like the way we bought tickets ahead of time,” he said. “It was seamless to get in.”

From the bleachers, it can be hard to see down the third-base line, Solano said. His group sat in the outfield and was able to get the view they wanted as they cheered for Lincoln Southwest.

“I like the way it was split up,” he said. “It allowed us to get up and walk around. They should have been like this all along.”

For Kris Norris of Hastings, it was encouraging to see people able to gather for the tournament after so many events have been canceled due to the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic.

“It’s great to see this place full after the summer,” she said. “I love it.”

Kesha McMurtry of Bellevue said it was nice to sit in the outfield and have space for her children to spread out more. She described herself as a pacer and likes to walk around during the game.

This was her first year at the tournament. She said she didn’t think Bellevue East would make it to the tournament, but was elated they did.

“It’s been really fun so far,” she said. “The atmosphere is totally different from the regular season games. The stands are full. The crowd is really pumped and excited.”

The state tournament concludes Friday.

Kaylee Allen of Bellevue spent time between the bleachers and the outfield. She’s been to the tournament several times and enjoys the atmosphere.

“It’s always amazing,” she said. “I love to come out and cheer for the girls.”

Nebraskans to decide fate of related casino gambling measures

Nebraska voters marking their general election ballots will pass judgment on a series of related initiative questions that together would allow for casino gambling at multiple locations in the state.

Proposed Measure No. 429 would amend the Nebraska Constitution to open the door for casino gaming operations within licensed horse racetrack enclosures in the state.

Proposed Measure No. 430, in turn, would take the state through that open door by enacting the Nebraska Racetrack Gaming Act and enshrining it in state statute.

The measure would establish a seven-member Nebraska Gaming Commission to license and regulate the gaming operations. The new commission would include two members in addition to the five members of the existing Nebraska Racing Commission.

Finally, Proposed Measure No. 431 would place in state law a taxation rate of 20% on gross gaming revenue generated through the racetrack gaming operations.

The resulting tax revenue would be earmarked as follows: 2.5% for the state’s Compulsive Gamblers Assistance Fund, 2.5% for the state’s General Fund, and 70% for the state’s Property Tax Credit Cash Fund.

The remaining 25% would be remitted to the county treasurer in the county where the gaming operation was located. If the operation in question were located in an unincorporated area of the county, all the money would go into county coffers. If the operation were located, in part or in whole, in an incorporated municipality, the money would be divided equally between the county and the city or village in question.

If Measure No. 429, the proposed constitutional amendment, were to be defeated by voters in this election, approval of Measure No. 430 and/or No. 431 would be moot.

Nebraska currently has six licensed horse racetracks, including Fairplay Park at Hastings, which is operated by Hastings Exposition & Racing at 947 S. Baltimore Ave.

Fonner Park in Grand Island, which is owned by the Hall County Agricultural Society, also is on the list.

The other four tracks on the list are Atokad Park at South Sioux City, Lincoln Race Course at Lincoln, Horsemen’s Park in Omaha, and Platte County Ag Park in Columbus.

Two organizations backing the expanded casino gaming petition are the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, owner of Lincoln Race Course and Horsemen’s Park in Omaha; and Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and owner of Atokad Park.

The campaign in support of the three related ballot measures is called “Keep the Money in Nebraska” and argues that Nebraska needs to keep hundreds of millions of casino gambling dollars per year at home rather than allowing them to escape out of state.

In presenting information on the three related ballot measures, the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office provides summaries of arguments both for and against them.

The “in favor” summaries cite supporters’ estimates that casino gambling would generate more than $65 million in new tax revenue for Nebraska — more than $40 million of which would be earmarked for property tax relief statewide.

The Compulsive Gambler’s Assistance Fund, which already exists, would receive an estimated $1.625 million per year from the new revenue stream, more than doubling the Nebraska Commission on Problem Gambling’s annual budget.

On its website, the Keep the Money in Nebraska Committee estimates that Nebraskans currently are spending at least $500 million per year in casinos in neighboring states. The group also states that more than 70% of Nebraska’s population currently lives within 60 miles of an existing out-of-state casino, and estimates that Nebraskans are spending nearly $400 million of the $500 million total in those nearby establishments alone. (Three casinos are operating in Council Bluffs, Iowa, just across the state line from Omaha, and several others operate elsewhere in Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas and Missouri.)

The Keep the Money in Nebraska website highlights an April 2020 study by Jonathan B. Taylor, a Massachusetts economist who studies gaming and its economic impacts, especially for Native American groups. Taylor estimates horse racing track casinos in Nebraska would create a total of 4,653 jobs and be associated with $320 million of the gross state product.

The question of whether to allow casinos in Nebraska has long been contentious. Under the leadership of Pat Loontjer of Omaha, the organization Gambling with the Good Life has existed since 1995 to oppose expanded-gambling measures. GWTGL is leading the charge in the 2020 campaign, as well, working alongside groups including the nonprofit Nebraska Family Alliance, the Nebraska Catholic Conference and others.

In summarizing opposition arguments, the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office indicates that opponents contend Measure No. 429, the proposed constitutional amendment, would have the effect of legalizing casino gambling of all types not only in licensed racetrack enclosures, but on all tribal lands throughout Nebraska, where state regulations and taxation don’t apply.

This would be the case because of existing provisions in federal law, the opponents contend.

Again according to the Secretary of State’s Office, proponents of the constitutional amendment counter that the amendment would not automatically allow casinos on tribal lands since those are regulated at the federal level and an agreement with the governor would need to be reached.

In opposing Measures No. 430 and 431, critics assert that they are special-interest legislation that inappropriately bypasses the Nebraska Legislature and would give special tax consideration to gaming operations and the racetracks where they would be located. They maintain that the Legislature, not special interests, should determine how any potential casinos should be taxed and where the resulting revenue should go.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, former Gov. Kay Orr and Tom Osborne, the former Nebraska Cornhuskers football coach and NU athletic director and a former U.S. congressman for Nebraska’s 3rd District, were among opponents who attended an Oct. 6 news conference at the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln organized by Gambling with the Good Life.

Orr said her fellow former governors Bob Kerrey, Mike Johanns and Dave Heineman oppose the 2020 ballot measures, as well. (Kerrey and Johanns also served as U.S. senators from Nebraska.)

In remarks at the news conference, Osborne said casino gambling in Nebraska likely would cost the state far more money related to social problems than it would generate in new tax revenue.

Gambling addiction, crime and poverty are among the repercussions Osborne mentioned as being associated with expanded gambling.

“Most studies will show that for every $1 you get (in revenue) you lose between $3 and $4 in social costs,” Osborne said.

Osborne, who co-founded the TeamMates youth mentoring program with his wife, Nancy, said casino gambling would hurt innocent young people and damage Nebraska’s quality of life.

“The people that bear the greatest burden of this problem will be the families — the spouses and the children of of those who have a gambling problem, because they bear the greatest price.”

South Heartland feeling the strain of coronavirus

A total of 132 new cases of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, have been recorded in the four-county South Heartland Health District since Sunday, the district health department reported Wednesday evening.

The new cases in Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties include nine reported on Sunday, 34 reported Monday, 44 reported Tuesday and 45 reported Wednesday.

Meanwhile, as of Wednesday morning 12 patients were being treated for the disease at hospitals in the health district. Five of those 12 were in critical care, and three were on ventilators.

Fourteen South Heartland residents have died of COVID-19 since March.

The novel coronavirus, which causes no symptoms in some infected individuals and mild to serious illness in others, is affecting South Heartland residents of all ages at this time.

According to South Heartland, 13 school systems serving students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the health district were being affected by COVID-19 as of Wednesday morning, with a combined total of 238 students and staff members absent for reasons related to the virus.

That total includes 162 students and 17 staff members in quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure, plus 33 students and 24 staff members in isolation after testing positive for the disease themselves.

Michele Bever, district health department executive director, said disruptions related to COVID-19 have pushed two of the 13 affected school systems to either close temporarily or pivot toward remote learning.

At the same time, residents and workers at senior living facilities are enduring hardship as a result of the virus, either because they have tested positive themselves or are in varying levels of quarantine because of potential or actual exposure to the virus or the threat of exposure.

“There are currently six long-term care facilities in our district with either residents or staff or both who have tested positive in the past two weeks, including 17 staff and 10 residents who tested positive for COVID-19,” Bever said.

In Wednesday evening’s news release, Bever announced that the health district’s risk dial reading for this week increased to 2.5 from 2.4 last week. The new reading remains in the orange, or “elevated,” zone on the dial, which has zones for low (green), moderate (yellow), elevated (orange) and severe (red) risk of additional spread of the virus in the South Heartland jurisdiction.

The district recorded 151 new cases of COVID-19 for the week of Oct. 4-10 and had a test positivity rate of 14.9%. The test positivity rate is the number of new positive cases recorded in the district divided by the number of sample specimens collected in the same time period.

Various factors are taken into account when determining the risk dial reading for a given week. Bever told the Tribune this week that even though South Heartland posts its running tally of COVID-19 recoveries on its website along with other virus-related statistics, the recovery number is not one of the factors taken into account on the risk dial.

The district’s recovery tally hasn’t been updated recently, even as new case numbers are continuing to climb. Bever told the Tribune she hopes to update the recovery number soon, but that she and her staff are falling behind on some of their duties as their workload related to new cases continues to grow.

Among many other duties, the South Heartland staff investigates new positive cases of COVID-19 to identify and notify the individuals’ close contacts.

In Wednesday’s news release, Bever asked for district residents’ cooperation in helping to thwart the further spread of the virus.

“The capacity of our small department is being pushed to the limits,” she said. “We are not able to be as responsive and there will be delays as we work through the queue and investigate cases. Residents can help by being attentive to minor allergy-like symptoms, getting tested, and isolating while their tests are pending. If you have been told or think you have been exposed to a positive case, self-quarantine for 14 days from your last exposure.”

Bever has said the increase in transmission of the virus is being driven by district residents’ social interactions, in some cases without adequate health precautions, following several months of curtailment.

“This is how it spreads,” she said.

While some people have moderate symptoms and feel ill for a couple of weeks, and others have severe symptoms and require hospitalization, Bever said, many infected individuals can have very mild, allergy-like symptoms, or no symptoms at all, and are able to spread the virus to others unknowingly and unintentionally.

“The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is circulating in our district at higher and higher levels,” she said. “Mask up and keep 6 feet distance from people you don’t live with. Please take steps to protect others and yourselves, everywhere you go, in everything you do.”

For more information and statistics, visit the South Heartland website at www.southheartlandhealth.org.