MONROE — A small group of Monroe residents has raised about $18,000 since the start of last year for a new playground, along with other upgrades, for Gesner Park.

Resident Ashlie Stubbs found herself having to drive several miles to other towns, often visiting Searsport, in 2021 to find parks that had playground equipment appropriate for her toddler, she said.

At times, she said she wished there were a park closer with age-appropriate playground equipment so her family did not have to drive so far whenever her son wanted to go to a playground. That thought inspired her into action to bring updated playground equipment to Gesner Park.

“We went to Frankfort and Swanville and Belfast and Searsport, and we’ll continue to visit those places,” she said. “… At the end of the day, I was just bummed that, why don’t we have something like that? And so that’s what really was a big charge for me, too.”

The Monroe Community Church, UCC, owns the park and leases it to the town, she said. It is maintained by the town recreation department and Monroe Lions Club.

Stubbs and fellow resident Betsy Samuelson started organizing monthly meetings at the beginning of 2022 with roughly 20 other residents and people from neighboring towns to organize fund raising efforts and develop a plan to upgrade parts of the park.

The group became Friends of Gesner Park, which is not yet a state-sanctioned nonprofit, Stubbs said. The town is the group’s fiduciary agent, so it accepts and holds the donations, according to Samuelson.

Stubbs originally set out to raise funds for updated playground equipment but realized that there are other parts of the park that should be refurbished so kids of all ages can enjoy it, she said. The town, the church and the Lions Club all approved of the Friends’ ideas.

The group hopes to raise $42,000 for two new playground structures, Stubbs said. The playground structure for ages 2 to 5 will cost roughly $10,000 and the structure for ages 5 to 12 will cost about $30,000. The group has raised about $18,000 in the last year, Samuelson said.

The group also hopes to resurface the basketball court and add lighting and a community equipment shed at the park, she said. The playgrounds will be located toward the back corner of the park near existing equipment, which includes a weathered merry-go-round along with other metal equipment roughly in the same condition.

The group is submitting a grant application to the Maine Community Foundation’s Community Building Grant Program under its Waldo County fund so it can first construct the toddler playground structure, resurface the basketball court, and add the lighting and community shed, Samuelson said. These renovations address needs for people of all ages who might want to use the park.

For many years there were few events at the park, Stubbs said. Since the group began organizing, members have hosted events like last year’s egg hunt in April and ice cream social in August at the park to help generate interest and raise funds. More children in town have begun signing up for town soccer, with the town creating two teams last fall.

When Stubbs and Samuelson started gauging community support for the park, they said they found many people in town were in favor of their ideas to make it more attractive for local families and residents. The Friends hosted a barn dance last year, which alone raised almost $4,000 for the park renovations.

Residents generally have a sense of pride for Gesner Park, Stubbs said. And having a park with equipment and amenities that can support its residents is beneficial for people who do not have the means to travel out of town to access public recreation, Samuelson said.

In its heyday, the park was the site of an agricultural fair organized by the Waldo and Penobscot Agricultural Society, attracting as many as 2,500 people at one time, according to documentation from the Monroe Historical Society. The fair dates back to the 19th century. The land was transferred to the church at some point, which in turn leased the land to the town.

A historic photo of a large structure that used to exist at Gesner Park in Monroe. Courtesy of Monroe Historical Society

The Friends will continue to operate and raise funds for the park even after the group reaches its goal and constructs the two playgrounds, Samuelson said. They hope the group will continue to support the park and help fund future renovations.

There is a new generation of residents coming up to build upon the foundation that previous generations have laid, and they are starting to take the helm of community projects and support, Stubbs said.

“I grew up watching my parents, you know, support the local events and as we aged out, almost so did they,” she said. “… And then the next generation has to kind of come in and so I feel like we’re kind of at that swing point here.

“There are certainly still well-established families who have been supportive of this space since the 1990s, who still are. But they’re being supportive and welcoming to this new steam coming through to help take on that maintenance of what’s already here.”

Donations for Gesner Park can be made to the Town of Monroe. Checks can be mailed to the town or dropped off at 8 Swan Lake Ave., with a note specifying that donations are for the Gesner Park project. For more information, Stubbs can be reached at 592-0336.