ANTIOCH -- When the tot lot playground at City Park was destroyed in an arson fire three months ago, Brittney Gougeon, the founder of Take Back Antioch, didn't just get mad. She got busy, raising money from almost 100 residents and businesses to help rebuild the children's play area in the once rundown park.
Pacific Gas & Electric learned of her efforts and decided to pledge a $12,500 matching grant to add to the $8,500 in community donations already raised by the nonprofit to cover the city's $25,000 insurance deductible that will be applied toward the estimated $250,000 cost to rebuild the playground.
Gougeon was confident she could raise the final $4,000 required under the matching grant, given her earlier success.
"This is the heart of our city, and a lot of people were offended by this," Gougeon said. "It showed we are strong and are not going to allow this to happen."
Now, she won't have to raise those additional funds, thanks to a last-minute decision made by Tom Guarino, a local PG&E executive, and Jim Frazier, a former Oakley councilman elected to the state Assembly in November. Frazier's $2,000 contribution comes from leftover campaign funds, and Guarino said PG&E would chip in the additional $2,000 needed for the matching grant. The utility's $14,500 total pledge is taken from a charitable donation fund financed by shareholders.
"I thought I had no words before. Now, I definitely have no words," Gougeon said at an event Thursday that started with the obligatory presentation of an oversized $12,500 check to Take Back Antioch.
The playground had been part of a turnaround at City Park. Antioch's oldest park had become the site of rampant drug use, public drunkenness and transient camps in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The park underwent a renaissance in the mid 2000s as city staff razed dilapidated storage and restroom facilities, planted new grass and improved visibility by creating a drive-through parking lot.
Police ramped up patrols to prevent the homeless from sleeping there.
The community effort to restore City Park made the Sept. 17 arson fire sting a little bit more. Two teenage boys from Antioch, ages 14 and 17, were arrested and charged with arson.
Once Guarino learned of Take Back Antioch's fundraising efforts to rebuild the tot lot, he figured PG&E could pitch in. "Take Back Antioch -- there was some activity going on there, there was some energy. It looked like they needed some help," he said.
Guarino said the utility has a personal stake in the park given that PG&E employees and construction workers who helped build the Gateway power plant in Antioch were among the community volunteers who helped restore the park.
Antioch resident Beverly Knight recalled going to the tot lot hours after the fire and seeing the devastation.
"I couldn't stop crying. It was really sad," she said.
Knight is sure that the new tot lot that will take its place "is going to be awesome."
With the donated funds covering the city's insurance deductible, City Councilman Gary Agopian said Antioch will be able to consider adding additional security features such as improved lighting when work to rebuild the tot lot starts in spring 2013.
"This is a great testament to our spirit and the people of Antioch," he said of the community donations. "So let's not just rebuild it to what it was but to make it even better."
Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her on Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.