CLEARWATER — Moccasin Lake Nature Park is getting a facelift. The city has budgeted $400,000 next year for capital improvements to the park just off U.S. 19, including renovating or reconstructing its interpretive center.
"That's a huge investment into the park, more than has been made in the last 20 years," said Felicia Leonard, administrative support manager with the city.
Officials also announced a reduction in park hours, leaving some members of the community who are most passionate about the park upset.
The 51-acre park is near the intersection of Drew Street and U.S. 19. It includes six different ecosystems and has an interpretive center for environmental education with static and live animal displays. The park also houses rescued birds of prey.
The money for renovations will be available in October 2015, Leonard said. The fate of the existing interpretive center — whether it can be remodeled or if it needs to be demolished and rebuilt — will not be known until the city consults an engineer and architect.
Leonard said she also has applied for a federal grant that could provide an additional $200,000. If the city wins the grant this summer, the funds would finance the demolition of energy exhibits in the park's northeast corner for the construction of a playground.
The grant would also pay for new educational signs along the park's wooded paths. In addition to passive signs with text, Leonard wants to incorporate audio and video or even QR codes, which visitors could scan with smart phones to read information about the park.
In the meantime, the city has already invested about $100,000 in trail and boardwalk renovations. A new pier is also under construction and efforts have commenced to eliminate invasive plants.
The city also announced a number of operational changes to be implemented beginning in May at Moccasin Lake. First, the park's maintenance will become the responsibility of the Parks and Beautification Division of the city rec department. Currently, the three full-time staff members at the park spend much of their time on the park's condition.
With fewer maintenance responsibilities, those staffers will have more time to devote to environmental education at Moccasin Lake and in other city parks, Leonard said. They will facilitate activities such as geocaching and kayak tours, she said.
The staffers, though, will spend less time at Moccasin Lake, so the city is reducing the number of days the park is open for walk-in use from five days per week to three. Currently, the park is open five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday. Come May 1, it will be open only Thursday through Saturday. The park will accommodate reservations made by groups of 15 or larger on any day, even if the park is closed to walk-in visitation.
The city will also eliminate the $3 drop-in fee when the park is open.
The new construction and operational changes coincide with the city's release of the 2013 Moccasin Lake Nature Park Master Plan. Barbara Walker, a Clearwater Audubon Society board member, is upset the committee of stakeholders that helped draft the master plan was not consulted regarding the new park schedule.
"The stakeholders committee needed to be brought in a little bit earlier on those operational changes to see if those changes were consistent with the spirit of the master plan," she said.
Walker also questioned why the park will remain closed on Sundays. She said before the city closed the park on Sundays three years ago, Sunday was one of the highest-traffic days.
"There are very few places in the city where you can go and take your kids and be in nature," said Nancy Neal, owner of a tree preservation company. "Closing that off, there's just no other place that's like that."
Leonard said that while the new Thursday through Saturday schedule will remain in place through August, she is willing to discuss the possibility of switching one of the days to Sunday.
Also, Leonard said committed volunteers could open the park and stay on-site on days when staff is not there.
Walker, though, is cautious about relying on volunteers.
"There are some things that can happen that a staff member could be better equipped to deal with," she said.
Josh Solomon can be reached at email@example.com, (727) 445-4155 or on Twitter @JSolomonTIMES.