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Petition sparks gender representation discussion for HealthEast Sports Center

A Woodbury resident recently launched a petition to include female athletes among the HealthEast Sports Center's illuminated silhouettes after his daughter asked him why there weren't "any girls." Photo by Joseph Hennessy.

WOODBURY — Joseph Hennessy walked his 8-year-old daughter past the silhouettes adorning the side of HealthEast Sports Center countless evenings after her soccer practice.

The illuminated figures depict athletes chasing hockey pucks, kicking soccer balls and batting at baseballs along the wall near the building's entrance.

Hennessy said he was recently caught off-guard when his daughter inquired about another characteristic the figures share: They're all men.

The observation, he said, made him think about how disproportionate representation affects female athletes like his daughter.

"How many times has she thought, wondered and assessed why girls aren't on that wall?" Hennessy said. "Asking the question already tells me she has doubts in her mind as to why women aren't equal."

An online petition Hennessy penned earlier this month calls on Woodbury City Council to address concerns over the silhouettes and change them to include more women.

The petition gained more than 2,000 signatures so far.

City Staff say the seemingly all-male lineup on the wall wasn't intentional.

"It was certainly an inadvertent oversight that the exterior figurines appear to look more male than female and we wished we could go back in time and do it differently from the beginning," City Administrator Clint Gridley said in an email.

Concern over the figures was initially brought to the city attention through an email Liz Bergeron, Hennessy's neighbor, sent to council members asking them to consider adding women to the design.

Parks and Recreation Director Bob Klatt, whom the council asked to respond to her email, said designers intended the figures to be "gender neutral."

Changing the figures, Klatt said, would require discarding many existing metal panels lining the exterior wall and fabricating new ones.

"This would be a time consuming and fairly expensive process, which does not seem like a good use of taxpayer resources," Klatt said in the email.

In another email responding to a note Bergeron sent Mayor Mary Stephens Giuliani, City Clerk Kim Blaeser said replacing the panels was not a priority for council members or staff at this time.

Bergeron later met with Gridley and Blaeser, who explained the expense and complicated replacement process would likely prevent council from considering changes to the decor.

The silhouettes were part of a design for the building reviewed and approved by a 14-person task force, which included Woodbury residents, athletic representatives, Council Member Amy Scoggins and Mayor Mary Stephens Giuliani.

Gridley said the city factored the cost of their creation into an overall budget for the project and did not separate the expense.

To change the figures, Gridley said, the council would have to approve public funds and tack down the scope of the project's design, construction and installation expenses.

"Any cost and staff time impact to make a undetermined change would depend on how many figurines would be changed and what the level of any new design would be," he said in an email.

Staff forwarded the petition to council members, who will determine if or how to respond.

Council Member Christopher Burns said the city will likely develop a more formalized public input process, but for now council members are in 'listening mode' for the designs.

"I have an extremely open mind on all of this and do what's best for Woodbury, all the men women boys girls with this entire project," Burns said. "Our residents have been very respectful and thoughtful in their reproach."

HealthEast, the healthcare system that pays $126,000 annually for the building's naming rights, said they would have little say in how the city addresses concern over the decor.

"It seems that all parties are really interested in having all genders represented," spokeswoman Erika Taible said. "I think what we've communicated that it's important there's a process that engages the public in making any decisions."

Hennessy said he plans bring up the silhouettes during public comments at the Feb. 28 city council meeting.

Hennessy said although he's pleased with the community's response to the petition, the silhouettes as part of a larger discussion about gender equity.

"It's always surprising to see so many people join in on what is seemingly just a father-daughter conversation," he said. "It's a broader conversation for our community, state and nation as we look at ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves, 'are we doing everything we can?'"