Fired Up! How a Small Alabama Town Became 'America's Favorite Park'

Marquavious D. Kimbrough, 4, of Prattville casts his line, hoping for a bite in the lake at Pratt Park. He and his family often visit the park for recreation, his mother Shakethia Kimbrough, said. (All photos by Sherrel Wheeler Stewart.)

PRATTVILLE, Ala. — If 4-year-old Marquavious Kimbrough had his way, he would have hooked a big fish in the lake at Pratt Park so his mother, Shakethia Kimbrough, could cook it for Saturday’s dinner.

The big bite never came for him on this sunny Saturday in the Southeastern United States. Still he and his family enjoyed casting their lines and sharing laughs at “America’s Favorite Park.” 

Next sumer, Marquavious and other Prattville children will have a new attraction at the 15-acre park — a splash pad made of recycled tires where children can romp on a rubbery surface under cooling water spray. City leaders say the splash pad will be fun and a welcome relief in an area where heat sets in at springtime and hangs around some years until Halloween.

More than 28 million votes were cast this summer for the historic Pratt Park, making it number one among the more than 16,000 parks nationwide entered in Coca-Cola’s "America Is Your Park" online contest. As a result, Pratt Park took home the grand prize, a $100,000 recreation grant from Coca-Cola Live Positively. The city will use the funds to help build the park’s new splash pad.

Other awards in this year’s competition included $50,000 for Krull Park in Olcott, N. Y., second place; $25,000 for Curry Hammock State Park in Marathon, Fla., third place; and $15,000 for the wildcard winner, Swift-Cantrell Park in Kennesaw, Ga.

Helping Where It’s Needed

In 2011, Oak Park in Minot, N.D., won first place in the competition. The park, which had been damaged by floods, used the recreation grant from Coca-Cola Live Positively to help restore the park for the community to enjoy again.

Prattville, located about 80 miles south of Birmingham, sits in the shadow of Montgomery, the state capital, which is about 12 miles away.

Mayor Bill Gillespie says the city of about 35,000 is a quiet but energetic place. Pratt Park, the oldest of the city’s 21 parks, is a hub for a lot of that energy.

“We have several parks, but Pratt Park is considered the main one,” says Gillespie, who was appointed to office in 2011. “On the Fourth of July, citizens come and sit in the stadium to watch the fireworks,” he says. “We even have canoeing on the creek.”

Stop by the park on Doster Road on almost any day of the week, and you’ll find people walking or jogging around the lake, kids playing in A Child’s Place playground, and families feeding the ducks or just relaxing under a tree.

The park also has an Olympic-sized swimming pool to host competitive events. In addition, residents use the pavilions to host everything from birthday parties and cookouts to civic and school events.

Mobilizing for Voting

Like many cities in Alabama and across the country, Gillespie says Prattville wrestles with a tight budget. In lean years, cities look for additional resources to help do some of the things needed to serve citizens and improve the quality of life.

That’s exactly what led to the city’s decision to compete for the Coca-Cola Live Positively grant.

“I told our staff I needed for everyone to start looking for grants. Our director of leisure services discovered the Coca-Cola recreation grant program, but at the time he found it, the contest had been going for two weeks,” Gillespie says. “We were really behind when we started, but our team got busy. It was a community effort.”

Teresa Lee, the city’s webmaster, and the mayor’s wife, Stephanie, worked with the team to spread the word and to get people voting online. Throughout the city, people voted individually or in organized groups.

Facebook, foursquare, Twitter,, you name it — people were getting online to vote for Pratt Park, Lee says. “This really showed us the power of social media,” she says. “In Prattville we have a population of about 35,000, but we have nearly 6,000 fans on our Facebook page. We have really good traffic on our website.”

The city planned several events to encourage people throughout the community to go to a certain place with wireless access to vote. “We created a media blitz,” says Lee, who also is the mayor’s administrative assistant.

Amanda Melton doesn’t know how many times she voted for Pratt Park in the contest. “I lost count. Some days I just sat with my cell phone and voted as much as I could. I voted until my thumbs hurt.”

Melton grew up as a military child, but life in Prattville is what she really enjoys. “This is a real community,” she says. “There is a family atmosphere …. They have worked hard to keep it this way, and it just feels good.”

Lance LeFleur, director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, says the agency’s commitment to enhancing the quality of life in the state is one of the reasons it is making a $42,000 contribution toward the splash pad project at Pratt Park.

“This project helps us understand how we can improve the environment by recycling tires,” LeFleur says during a recent check presentation ceremony at Pratt Park.

Each year more than four million tires are discarded in Alabama, and another five million tires come into the state from other areas, LeFleur says.

Fired Up! How a Small Alabama Town Became 'America's Favorite Park'

Ronald Schomaker, left, and Kay Smith find comfort in the shade of Pratt Park as they wait for announcements on the judging for a car show. Pratt Park is the center of many civic activities. The couple's vehicle is one of several in a show to benefit the Autauga County Humane Society.

The Alabama Legislature in 2008 approved a $1 charge to be added to the sale of each tire in the state so that that money could be used to remediate scrap tires.

Getting the Community Moving

Alabama ranks number four in obesity, according to rankings out this summer. Those statistics are a great concern for Gillespie, and are part of the reason for his emphasis on parks and recreation.

“We want to get people outdoors. We want to see people moving about and enjoying life,” he says. “When they have access to quality parks and recreation areas, they can do that.”

George and Peggy Smith live in Millbrook, just outside of Prattville. When they come to town to visit family or to go to the doctor’s office, Pratt Park is often an added destination, they say.

“We just like to get out here and walk around sometimes,” says Peggy. “The park is a good place for exercise.”

Melanie Jones, Alabama market unit vice president with Coca-Cola Refreshments, says the company has been supporting efforts to rebuild and maintain parks for more than 40 years, because parks are the anchors for communities.

“The eyes of the world are on Prattville,” she says. “You are shining so brightly. Everyone will want to move here.”