TARPON SPRINGS — The reopening of Fred Howard Park's popular beach, originally planned for this fall, has been delayed until at least Dec. 8 as crews continue to rebuild the mile-long connecting causeway.
It has been more than a year since Pinellas County's northernmost beach closed on Sept. 2, 2008, its two 41-year-old bridges in need of reconstruction. An engineering decision to repave the causeway and beach parking lot while crews were already on site, instead of planning another closure next year, extended the work, said Paul Cozzie, the county's culture, education and leisure director.
Crews finished the bridges' construction earlier this year but continue to repair the causeway's concrete embankments and to install guardrails and handrails. Laying new asphalt will come last and add another $600,000 to the $4.8 million in reconstruction costs, said county spokeswoman Mary Burrell.
After the construction work, parks workers will reinstall toilets, trash cans and bathroom sinks removed last year to deter potential vandals. Depending on how long the restoration takes and the weather — rain could delay repaving — the beach may reopen as late as mid December.
(For the record, the beach has seen no vandalism during its closure, Cozzie said — just birdwatchers and boaters admiring the natural solitude.)
Though the entrance to the causeway is barricaded, the park's butterfly garden, kayak waterways, playgrounds and shelters remain open to the public.
More than 2 million people last year visited the 155-acre park, which juts into the Gulf of Mexico.
Though Cozzie does not expect that the beach will see a grand reopening, calling it a "frill" not easily afforded with the county's tight budget, park visitors on Thursday said having their beach back would be cause for celebration.
"It should have been open in September," said James Browntree, 17, a Tarpon Springs High School student who skipped class Thursday to relax at the park with three friends.
Since the closure, he said, kids his age have turned to Sunset Beach and Honeymoon Island State Park for swimming and sunbathing. But they're not the same.
"This is like the best beach spot," he said. "It's a good place for kids to go and hang out."
Drew Harwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.