PALM HARBOR — If this was a fairy tale, it would end with a gift from a fairy godmother.
However, instead of a time of fairy tales, "this is a time that's hard on just about everyone,'' said Erica Lynford, Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation director.
But if Lynford had a fairy godmother to grant her one wish, no doubt it would include a mysterious benefactor who wanted to ensure Palm Harbor children would have plenty of green space to play games on, now and forever.
Through real estate broker Mike Nahat, a former Pinellas County employee who helped secure the purchase of the Wilde tract for Brooker Creek Preserve in 2008, Lynford was informed that an undeveloped parcel next to Palm Harbor's Sunderman Recreation Complex is for sale.
Nothing would make her happier than creating more athletic fields there, in particular for Palm Harbor's bulging soccer and football programs, she said.
The land, 4.75 acres, is owned by Bayou Development Inc., whose directors are listed as Carol and Roger Altman of Palm Harbor. The tree-covered land borders the Pinellas Trail and Alt. U.S. 19, with Missouri Avenue as its southern border and the Sunderman Boat Launch property as its northern border.
Bayou Development is selling the acreage for $1.5 million, and Nahat believes it would be a good purchase for the Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation Department.
Lynford agrees. "The land would be utilized to the fullest potential,'' she said. "But, of course, we don't have $1.5 million.''
Palm Harbor's sports programs are held at several locations. The recreation department runs baseball, softball, hockey, beach volleyball and tennis out of its own Sunderman Recreation Complex and Putnam Park. It also uses Palm Field at Church of the Palms for baseball and soccer teams, and uses Palm Harbor Middle School's fields for the Palm Harbor Panthers Pop Warner Football League. In return, the department maintains those fields.
The location of Bayou Development's property is ideal, Lynford said.
"Not only would we be able to use the overflow parking lot at Sunderman, but in the end, we'd also have lower maintenance costs because it is actually where we already house our maintenance equipment," she said.
Lynford recently met with Nahat and Jim Gleason, head of the Palm Harbor Panthers, to discuss the possibility of a purchase.
"I think there is private funding to be had here,'' said Lynford. "I'd love to see a large corporation in Palm Harbor step up, and in return, the business would receive naming rights. Think of Bright House Field (in Clearwater), for example,'' Lynford said.
Gleason agrees. Every fall for the last eight years, Gleason has juggled team calendars, planning the Panthers' schedule around the other events Palm Harbor Middle held on the field.
"We've got challenges,'' he said. "Also at Palm Harbor Middle, there are no lights, so there are no night games, and there are also no permanent bleachers and no concessions, and every year we cap out at registration, having to turn kids away because we simply don't have the space,'' he said.
If the Palm Harbor department were able to get the property, then the Panthers would "kick in and hold fundraisers as well as be in a position where we could apply for grants," Gleason said, "like the NFL Grassroots Field Grant." That is a $200,000 grant the Panthers would have to match, and the money could be used for capital improvements.
But for now, Gleason is making the situation work. As of Oct. 14, the combined win-loss record for the competitive teams in the league, which has 300 tackle football players and 100 cheerleaders, is 19-9.
"I hope we can get the land,'' he said. "There is so little land available in North Pinellas. This kind of acreage doesn't exist, and we certainly could use it.''
Nahat, the broker, says there is no pressing deadline.
"But I just don't see Palm Harbor wanting to lose that piece of property,'' he said. "I'm working for the seller, and if it sells to somebody else, I'll be okay with it, but of course, I believe in public ownership. My own kids went through a youth football program so I know the value there too.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4163.