The last Saturday in April seemed like an ordinary hot and dry spring day in the Coachella Valley—the kind where the temperature starts climbing early in the day, and hints that the triple-digit summer isn’t far away.
But for about four dozen people who gathered in a field of graded dirt that morning, it was not an ordinary day: They were at the long-awaited groundbreaking of the Mecca Regional Sports Park.
This celebration marked the pinnacle of nearly 20 years of planning, money-wrangling, politicking and government navigating required to create a safe place for local families to gather and play in an under-resourced community that has a median household income of about $25,000.
“Today is about the community of Mecca,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, whose district includes unincorporated areas of the eastern Coachella Valley, including Mecca. “It’s about the residents of Mecca, who have been waiting for quite some time.”
Leticia De Lara, a director for the Desert Healthcare District who attended the groundbreaking, said that about 20 years ago, community workers canvassed Mecca and held focus groups to find out what kinds of development people wanted to see.
A library. A clinic. An Avenue 66 overpass. And a park. “These were all projects the community wanted,” she said, adding that some people doubted the plans would ever be realized.
Located next to the Mecca Boys and Girls Club at Avenue 66 and Dale Kiler Road, the park is adjacent to that aforementioned overpass, which was recently completed and now helps alleviate traffic pressure, improving safety conditions in the area.
The sports park will be managed by the Desert Recreation District. Amenities include sports fields, playgrounds, volleyball courts, walking paths, exercise stations, a splash pad, picnic tables, a snack bar and restrooms.
Shade structures, green space and natural landscaping round out the plans, to make the park as usable as possible year-round—not unlike the public parks in the wealthier communities of Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and Palm Springs.
The park’s development was catalyzed by a $5.8 million grant from the state awarded to Riverside County, covering the bulk of the $6.7 million price tag. Those funds come from Proposition 68, the Parks and Water Bond Act, which state voters passed in 2018, authorizing $4 billion in spending for infrastructure and parks.
Recreation funds from the bond are metered out through competitive grant rounds—a long and arduous process that requires significant paperwork and waiting periods. The Mecca project was one of 112 projects that received money out of 500 applications during that round, said Armando Quintero, the director of the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
“You designed this park; this is really funding your idea,” he said at the groundbreaking. “We are standing in what will become a heart for your community.”
Quintero was a guest of honor among the local elected officials and community leaders in attendance. He made the trip down to Mecca specifically for the groundbreaking, saying he frequently stopped in the area as a child with his father—and he commended the area for its strong collaboration.
Garica has represented the 56th Assembly District—which includes the eastern Coachella Valley, Cathedral City and Imperial County—since he was first elected in 2014; he’s currently running for re-election. He said local collaboration and relationship-building in Sacramento are important for communities that have been historically underserved and under-resourced, like Mecca, to receive state resources.
“We’ve made it a point to ensure that all programs at the state level look at things through the lens of equity, and look at communities like ours as a priority,” he said.
Even the loveliest of green spaces cannot make up for the lack of investment in the eastern Coachella Valley’s housing and infrastructure. And waiting 20 years to get a community park in a rural community that’s home to many families is also not equity. But from here on out, the plan is to work quickly and get the park completed by the end of 2022.
Sofia Saenz, who helps run after-school and summer programs at the Boys and Girls Club and has heard about park plans for years, said she can’t wait. The club serves hundreds of students in the area, providing low-cost childcare, as well as crucial socialization and support for young people. Saenz said the park will open up more opportunities for workshops in art, science and fitness—plus the sweet and simple joy of enjoying the great outdoors.
“It’s going to be amazing for the community, to spend time outside breathing in the air and enjoying life,” she said.
That’s something we could all use more of—regardless of our zip code, race, ethnicity, religion, or household income.