Playing safe

When Ron Sweetman got into the playground equipment business 25 years ago, he relied on the telephone to contact customers.

Justin Ritchie works on the chin-up bar in an adult outdoor gym in the Glendale neighborhood in Red Deer on Friday.  The outdoor gyms located at Glendale Park along Glendale Boulevard

Justin Ritchie works on the chin-up bar in an adult outdoor gym in the Glendale neighborhood in Red Deer on Friday. The outdoor gyms located at Glendale Park along Glendale Boulevard

When Ron Sweetman got into the playground equipment business 25 years ago, he relied on the telephone to contact customers.

One day, he recalled, the person at the other end of the line remarked, “Oh, you’re the playground guy.”

“I said, ‘Yes,’ and the name has been mine ever since.”

Today, The Playground Guys is an Olds-based business that provides playground and related equipment to schools, municipalities and other customers across Western Canada.

It’s set up hundreds of playgrounds, including about 35 in Red Deer, said Sweetman. Among these are the play areas at Bower Ponds and Kin Kanyon.

“In fact,” he pointed out, “all of the benches and litter containers you see around the city of Red Deer, in the parks, likely came from us.”

The Playground Guys isn’t a manufacturer. Rather, it helps customers design safe playgrounds and then sources the necessary equipment for them.

“We deal with a number of suppliers that we know and trust,” said Sweetman, whose credentials include Certified Playground Safety Inspector, Canadian Certified Playground Inspector and Factory Certified Installer.

He and his son Andy design the playgrounds they sell, with Sweetman’s wife, Erica, also involved in the business. The remaining seven staff members, called “ambassadors for fun,” include salespeople in Edmonton, Calgary, the B.C. Interior and the Lower Mainland.

Sweetman entered the playground industry in 1984, when he began working for Childspace Playgrounds Ltd. — a former manufacturer of playground equipment in Olds. By 1991, he had started The Playground Guys in British Columbia.

The business relocated to Central Alberta in 1999. That move was motivated in large part by the arrival of Sweetman’s grandchildren here.

The Playground Guys recently diversified into adult outdoor fitness equipment. Last year, it set up stations in Trochu as a test project, and it’s now developing more elaborate outdoor gyms in Red Deer.

Two are already in place at Victoria Park and Glendale Park, with others planned for Oriole Park West and Barrett Park. Each will include stations where users can perform exercises from chest presses and pull-ups to sit-ups and stationary walking.

“I first saw it in Europe a year and a half ago,” said Sweetman of the outdoor gym concept.

He noticed Chinese lettering on the equipment and decided to investigate.

“I made some Internet inquiries and I flew to China. I met with a number of manufacturers there and I entered into a relationship with the people that are supplying this equipment.”

Although designed to help older adults develop and maintain their flexibility and range of motion, the equipment has proven popular with younger people as well. In Trochu, said Sweetman, it’s been incorporated into the high school phys-ed program.

“It’s going to be an emerging market, without a doubt.”

That said, he doesn’t foresee outdoor gyms eclipsing playground equipment when it comes to his business.

“If you think about the number of schools alone that are in the city of Red Deer, let alone the playgrounds,” remarked Sweetman, noting that the equipment tends to be replaced as new technologies and ideas for play arise.

“You won’t find any wooden playgrounds still in the city of Red Deer, I don’t believe. And yet 15 years ago the city was full of them.”

More information on The Playground Guys can be found at www.playgroundguy.com.

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com