How a new Mancini Park playground is rising out of the ashes of Modesto’s Memorial Hall
The American Legion Memorial Hall has been demolished after a fire last summer gutted the building that sat along the Tuolumne River in Modesto’s airport neighborhood for several decades and hosted birthday parties, wedding receptions, civic events and other gatherings.
The Tuolumne River Regional Park will spend the insurance proceeds from the fire as well as other funding — nearly $2.7 million in total — for projects within its borders. Those include $450,000 for a new playground at Mancini Park in south Modesto along the river.
While the building’s exterior cinder-block walls withstood the heat of the July 21 fire, a January report to the Tuolumne River Regional Park Commission states the building’s insurer determined it was a total loss primarily because it is in the river’s floodway and the state’s building codes would not likely allow the building to be rebuilt in the same spot.
The memorial hall is in the roughly 500-acre regional park that runs for seven miles along the river from Mitchell to Carpenter roads. The park is a joint venture among Modesto, Ceres and Stanislaus County, and Modesto manages it.
The new playground should be in place during Modesto’s upcoming budget year, which starts July 1, said Modesto Parks Planning and Development Manager Nathan Houx. Once the city has a couple of designs for the playground, it will hold at least one community meeting to solicit feedback for a final design before the playground is built, he said.
“It would be nice to have an upgraded playground,” said 46-year-old Mike Espinoza late Thursday morning as he walked and jogged along the paved path that loops around much of the park. There were about a dozen people walking along the path.
“There are lots of younger kids who come here.”
Espinoza said the park is packed on the weekends with children playing soccer as their families look on. He said he enjoys the open, green space (the park takes up about 20 acres) and he doesn’t worry about traffic as he would if he walked in the nearby neighborhoods.
“I just like it,” Espinoza said about Mancini Park. “It’s really convenient. It’s close to my house. It’s a good place.”
Houx said Mancini’s playground was installed in 1967, making it the oldest among the city’s parks. Much of the playground equipment has been removed for safety.
Mancini Park is in a part of Modesto that is largely Latino. Houx said a new playground was among the top amenities residents asked for when the city held community meetings in recent years as part of applying for state funding to improve three parks in underserved communities.
Modesto was not able to secure funding for Mancini but it was awarded $8.5 million each for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez parks in west Modesto, another heavily Latino and underserved community.
“We had a lot of people at our public meetings (for the state grant) so I’m excited about giving them a new playground for that neighborhood,” Houx said.
The decision not to rebuild and use the insurance proceeds elsewhere in the regional park was approved by the regional park commission, which is made up of elected officials from Ceres, Modesto and Stanislaus County, and by the regional park’s citizens advisory committee.
Advisory committee member Jim Bishop was the only member of the two bodies to oppose the decision.
“I thought it was a historical monument and could be rebuilt,” Bishop said. “... It was in a beautiful location overlooking the river. ... But I totally understand the other guys (his fellow committee members), too. We need to move forward on other projects.”
Houx, the parks planning and development manager, said there is no site large enough in the regional park where a new hall and parking lot could be built that would be outside of the floodplain. He said rebuilding also would be very expensive, assuming that the state and federal permits to do so could even be acquired.
The memorial hall had been around for decades. A Bee story from March 1949 announced that construction of the hall was expected to begin that year. And a story from November 1955 noted that Boy Scouts Troop 5 received its charter during a meeting of American Legion Post 74 at the hall.
The regional park acquired the memorial hall from the American Legion in 1980, according to the city. The hall served over the decades as a venue for candidate forums, as a polling place in elections and for social functions, including birthday parties and wedding receptions.
Houx said the hall was being rented on Saturdays in recent years. The kitchen had been closed because of water damage from the leaky roof. Houx said the hall had been operating at a loss in recent years.
The hall had been bringing in about $18,500 per year in rental income since 2018 versus expenses of about $72,300, according to the January report to the regional park commission. This excludes 2020 when rentals were limited to $1,050 because of the pandemic.
Authorities suspect last year’s fire, which remains under investigation. was started by a homeless person. The investigation includes whether the fire was intentional or accidental, such as a cooking or warming fire that got out of control. The hall had been a focal point for homeless people, with some sleeping under its deck overlooking the river.
The nearly $2.7 million the regional park will spend on the Mancini playground and other projects comes from $2.1 million in insurance proceeds from the fire (the proceeds are expected to be $2.4 million but $300,000 will cover clean up and demolition costs from the fire), $214,000 from what is left of the insurance proceeds from another fire from several years ago that destroyed what was known as the little legion hall and $350,000 in pandemic relief funding that had been set aside to improve the legion hall’s parking lot.
The other projects include replacing one of the restrooms in the regional park; removing dead trees and brush and trimming trees throughout the park; renovating one of the regional park’s picnic areas; and providing additional funding for such projects as the boat launch near John Thurman Field, the soccer fields to be built in Bellenita Park, and design work for part of the riverwalk that will run the entire length of the park.