ATLANTIC CITY - Saranne Rothberg has always loved the city where she spent her childhood summers.
On Wednesday, she felt the love back.
Several in the community gathered in the Police Athletic League building to discuss a playground Rothberg intends to build on the five parcels she owns at Virginia and Arctic avenues.
Rothberg, who lives in Bergen County, didn't know the lot was in disrepair until she received a citation from William Akins about overgrown grass. But it wasn't foliage she found on the lot. It was bottles and condoms and the makings of a drug den.
Instead of turning her back, she went into the neighborhood, and came back with a tidal wave of offers to help turn the lot into a playground.
"He got me in trouble," she said, putting an arm around Akins as she introduced him to her audience Wednesday night. "Now, we're all in trouble."
Offers have spanned the spectrum of social class and ethnic background, she proudly says. The playground should do that as well, said Councilman Marty Small, who Rothberg said jumped on board as soon as she shared her vision with him.
"It should definitely be multipurpose use," Small said. "It's definitely big enough to have a (paved) lot for little kids and a more teen-friendly atmosphere as well. We just want to make sure this park doesn't exclude anyone."
No one seemed excluded Wednesday, as those who already had shared their stories with Rothberg via e-mail and phone messages intermingled with those who came to see what they could do to help.
Bill Hancock had shown his wife, Kim, the story of Rothberg's plan in The Press of Atlantic City, and both sent Rothberg e-mails.
"I thought, how much fun would it be to give the kids who live in these houses a playground," Bill Hancock told the group. "So, I'm in."
He owns Harbor Electric; his wife worked for a decade as a grant writer.
"I figured they're going to need some money," Kim Hancock said.
"All right," yelled Sharon Miller, the owner of Dave's Grocery, next door to the lot. She's the one who originally took Rothberg to Small's office to help get the playground plan rolling.
Since then, "there have been no obstacles," Rothberg said. "It just keeps moving forward."
The new alliance is formidable, she promised.
"I would hate to be the city official who sits across the table from this group and tries to say no," Rothberg told them.
"There are very few causes where we can all come together as a community and have no negativity," said Frank Formica, owner of Formica's Bakery. "And this is for our most treasured asset, our children."
Earlier in the day, Rothberg met with her smaller contingent of planners, including a lawyer who will present her idea to the Zoning Board. She wants to lease the property to the city for $1.
"If that proposal doesn't work, don't leave the room until one does," she told the lawyer.
While Rothberg wants the vision to reflect everyone, she has one element she would love to see.
Her grandfather drove a jitney in the city, and it's one of her fondest memories. She wants a retired jitney - altered for safety - to greet the children "so all the kids can have the same experience I had growing up."
Every kid, she said, should know what it's like to sit behind the wheel of a jitney.
"We'd be honored," said Frank Becktel, the Atlantic City Jitney Association's treasurer.
"I've never been so proud or so honored to own a property in my life," Rothberg told the crowd. "You've brought back my childhood memories. And you've brought back a lot of people's faith."
IF YOU WANT TO HELP
Those who would like to offer help in the effort to build a playground in the empty lot can reach Saranne Rothberg at 888-300-3990, ext. 222, or e-mail: SaranneR@comedycures.org
E-mail Lynda Cohen: