Local dad plans new amusement park Urban Jungle will provide community-centered fun for inner-city youth—By Dwight Hobbes, Contributing Writer

Lebron Riley plans to start construction on Urban Jungle Amusement Park next year. -Photo courtesy of Lebron Riley

From the mouths of babes: Lebron Riley, executive director of Urban Jungle, Inc., recalls, “Back in ’94, ’95, [as] a father [with] a bunch of nieces, nephews and cousins, I used to take the kids to parks all the time on the weekends. Take them to Chucky Cheese, what have you. I was always one to be with the kids and play with them.

“Every time we got done, I’d be so sore. They’d be, like, ‘Why don’t we just make our own park?’ I looked at [them] and said, ‘You know what, maybe we should. My children and I, we sat for a couple of weeks, talked about what we could do, what we could have.”

Subsequent to extensive brainstorming and incorporating input from his kid consultants, Riley utilized Sabathani Community Center’s resources to research and document a plan. By 1997, he had a concrete idea with which to run. It was incorporated in 2000, and he now intends to launch a large-scale undertaking for family entertainment on the order of, say, Nickelodeon Universe (formerly Camp Snoopy). Same thing, only different.

Urban Jungle Amusement Park will be indoor, interactive, family entertainment: “A giant maze about the size of [supermarket]. On different levels. That’s the main attraction of our theme park [in addition to] a roller-skating park, game lounging area, food court, things like that.”

A salient feature is that Urban Jungle Amusement Park focuses on community, including youth health. “We’ll be running a six-week fitness program throughout the year.” It’s modeled on the White House’s Presidential Fitness Challenge. He adds that, in addition to the matter of generally fitness, “We’re going to help address obesity issues.” Kids earn badges for how well they do and discounts on admission to the amusement park.

Urban Jungle Amusement Park promises not only somewhere for families to have fun, but also a boon to Minneapolis’ economy. In the way of employment, 150 positions to start. As the enterprise thrives, Riley expects staff to increase accordingly. At the outset, the majority of job opportunities are for youngsters, addressing a chronic ill when it comes to why teens are running the streets, constantly recruited by drug dealers offering get-rich-quick schemes to peddle crack and weed.

The target date to announce plans for breaking ground is next year. A prime location under consideration for Urban Jungle Amusement Park is Heritage Park, near Olson Memorial Highway in North Minneapolis, close enough to downtown and within spitting distance of the Twins stadium, to attract citywide traffic.
He is in contact with Richard Copeland, president and owner of Thor Construction, Inc., who owns the property Riley has in mind as “one of the best [options]. The building is sitting there, empty.” Riley adds, “That would be a good way for minority [operators] to continue to work together. Mr. Copeland’s a minority. People say, ‘Oh, Black people can’t work together. You’ll never get nothing like that [off the ground].’ Black folk can’t work together? Yes, we can.”

Lebron Riley isn’t just espousing politically correct platitudes. He came by his commitment to community honestly. On top of the conversation Riley had at the post-Chucky Cheese summit, he used to work as a juvenile corrections officer and saw firsthand the need for at-risk youth to have those risks reduced and curtailed.

Importantly, their reactions to his idea of starting up Urban Jungle Amusement Park left a lasting impression. Toughened adolescents, caught up in the juvenile criminal justice system evidently knew when they saw someone who wasn’t simply about processing them into their next step of ongoing incarceration. In the course of interacting with them, he spoke on the prospect of setting up the Urban Jungle Amusement Park. He recalls that the facades and stolid fronts the youth put up gave way to unguarded, hopeful expressions on the faces of those who asked, “Really? That’d be somethin’. You really gon’ do somethin’ like that?”

“I still run into some of [them] on the street,” he adds, “and they say, ‘You still workin’ on that part? You not gon’ forget me?’”

The public can pitch in on funding efforts without having to reach into their wallets for a dime. The Urban Jungle Amusement Park project is entered in the Pepsi Refresher competition, which sponsors cash awards for ideas that empower communities. At www.refresheverything.com, you can cast a vote for Urban Jungle Amusement Park as many times as you wish.

Urban Jungle Amusement Park does not discriminate in its objective or appeal. All are welcome. Nonetheless, it offers opportunities to both engage minority youth as entertainment and motivate them to pursue productive employment. And, of course, it gives families the chance to simply go someplace and have a nice time.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to dhobbes@spokesman-recorder.com.