ST. PETERSBURG — Standing in the shade of a live oak at Newton Avenue S and Highland Street, Bettie Hayes talked about a hoped-for playground and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who would benefit.
"It's bigger than my back yard,'' Hayes said of the empty lot she and others hope will one day hold playground equipment instead of the makeshift swing made of rope strung between two trees.
But Hayes' hopes were dashed last week. A national nonprofit organization called KaBOOM! that works to create playgrounds around the country with the help of sponsors and residents said it will build the park for 5- to 12-year-olds elsewhere.
The Bartlett Park application wasn't quite ready, KaBOOM! spokesman Mike Vietti said Tuesday. "There were a lot of pieces to be put in place. I think, with a little bit more time, they would be able to put together a complete application.''
The neighborhood where 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton was killed in a drive-by shooting in her front bedroom more than a year ago has been invited to reapply next year. Vietti said their chances "will increase dramatically once they put together a complete application."
Not everyone is onboard with the project, though.
Scott Swift, who lives on the street where the playground is being considered and has no children, outlined his opposition in a three-page letter to the City Council. Among his concerns are neighborhood crime, dozens of registered sexual offenders living near the park, and the use of taxpayer dollars pledged for ongoing maintenance. The community already has a large park within a 10-minute walk, he wrote.
Those who support the proposed playground point out that as a KaBOOM! project, the new Bartlett Park playground would be paid for by a sponsor and built on land donated by St. Petersburg Neighborhood Housing Services. The only expense to taxpayers would be maintenance of the site, they say. City Council members recently agreed to spend up to $6,400 a year to maintain the park for 10 years.
City Council member Karl Nurse said the playground is part of an overall effort to improve the disadvantaged neighborhood.
"I don't think there is any downside to this,'' he said. "The lot is donated. All we as citizens are going to pay for is maintenance. So it's not free, but it is a very low price.''
Last week, Hayes was joined by two other residents, Elaine Chambliss, a mother of a 14-year-old son, and Andrea Hildebran, executive director of Green Florida, one of the organizations spearheading the playground effort. The women said that at least 50 children live near the empty lot and that many are too young to walk to Bartlett Park — which shares the neighborhood's name — and the Frank Pierce Recreation Center.
"Our kids are a great treasure to us, and we are going to do whatever is necessary to protect them,'' said Hayes, president of the Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association.
Swift said the project is not essential. "If we have extra funding to address the requirements of a new playground, couldn't this be better spent expanding facilities at Bartlett Park or subsidize costs to the poorest families who want to participate in programs at Frank Pierce Center?" he asked.
"Here we have kids that can't read, can't add and can't use a computer and here we are building them a playground,'' he said during a recent interview.
Swift also noted that there are 53 registered sexual predators and offenders living within a mile of the proposed playground, eight within a quarter-mile.
Sexual predators and offenders live near a number of city parks, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's website. Thirty-five sexual offenders/predators within a mile of Allendale Park. Forty-seven live within a mile of Crescent Lake Park, 45 within a mile of Bartlett Park and 19 within a mile of Harshaw Lake. There are 21 within a mile of Tyrone Park and 51 within a mile of the Millennium Youth Park Uptown Playlot. Snell Isle Park has three within a mile.
Like Swift, at least two members of the Council of Neighborhood Associations have reservations about the playground. Kathy Wilson, CONA's second vice president, is particularly concerned that money would be spent on a new park when funding has been cut from other city programs.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense to even consider this,'' said Steve Corsetti, who ran for the City Council.
But neighborhood residents like Chambliss are tired of the blight of vacant lots.
"As a property owner, an empty lot can't compare to a playground,'' she said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.