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New Port Richey Rotarians' gift enhances a natural gem

Artists set up their easels where the 1,600-foot boardwalk ends. They look out over the Pithlachascotee's black water and capture reflections of leaning palms mixed among tall pines, soaring osprey and the occasional manatee.

Out here it is so quiet, a respite from the honking, choking traffic on U.S. 19 only a few miles west. It is unspoiled, Old Florida.

For all the natural wonders accessible at the 85-acre James E. Grey Preserve, it has remained largely undiscovered since the city of New Port Richey opened it in 2003. The park is a favorite for paddlers who put in their canoes and kayaks to explore the river as it winds to the Gulf of Mexico. But until a few weeks ago, it was rare to find more than a few cars in the parking lot.

"Word is getting around,'' city parks director Elaine Smith said last week as we strolled among cabbage palms and stood on the banks where native Indians fished a few thousand years ago. "All of a sudden, we're seeing families. It's great.''

The attraction is a new playground in the center of the park, next to covered picnic tables and barbecue grills. It is the latest in a long series of community service projects by the Rotary Club of New Port Richey, which raised $30,000, mainly through its annual wild game dinner.

With 125 members, the 55-year-old club is the largest in the Rotary district that covers Pasco, Pinellas, Hernando and Citrus counties. Its tradition of giving began with members collecting shoes for poor elementary children and developed over the years to include a wide variety of charitable activities.

Its members include Realtors John and Chuck Grey and their brother Frank, a Pasco County judge, who joined dozens of others at the dedication of the playground. The park is named for their father, who in 1915 was the first child born in New Port Richey. He died in 1985.

James Grey's father, F.I. Grey, settled here in 1910 and founded the realty company that today is perhaps the oldest in the state.

"Our dad was the quintessential Floridian,'' offered Chuck Grey. "He loved that river and the woods. He camped where the park is now, and so did Johnny and I when we were boys. It is such an idyllic place and we're grateful it will be preserved.''

That was not always a certainty. The owner of the property, a Lithuanian man who lived in New York, could have sold it to developers for another $300,000, said John Grey, who worked with his brother to broker the deal. "He didn't even know our dad, but he liked his story. He said the park should be named after him.''

The state picked up most of the $775,000 tab through a program to preserve sensitive land. In 2007, the city added the boardwalk, bathrooms and other improvements, largely through state grants worth $400,000. A city police officer lives on the property to discourage vandalism and keep the peace.

Until recently, the biggest threat to the park seemed to be the highly invasive potato vines that threatened to choke more welcome vegetation. Then the University of Florida agriculture division delivered boxes of Lili beetles, tiny but voracious critters from Asia that resemble ladybugs.

"They love these vines,'' said John Fussell, a 10-year veteran of the parks department who — with just four other employees — maintains 12 properties with 152 acres, including a cemetery and Sims Park, the city's prize possession in the heart of downtown. It is there that the city faces one of its biggest decisions: what to do about the aging 12,000-square-foot wood playground that hundreds of volunteers came together to build one glorious week in 1990.

The new playground at the Grey Preserve will attract new visitors, but they'll have to work a bit to find the place. You can travel east on Louisiana Avenue past Gulf Middle School and follow the signs through a residential neighborhood. The more direct route from Plathe Road at the Rowan Road intersection is hard on cars, full of holes. The road is outside the city limits, so any improvements would be up to the Pasco County Commission.

With enhancements over recent years and now the playground's addition, one might wonder what the park will look like in, say, 20 years. Fussell considers that question while walking on the boardwalk and admiring territory that hasn't changed since long before the first explorers.

"Hopefully,'' he says, "not much different.''

New Port Richey Rotarians' gift enhances a natural gem 02/14/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 14, 2014 7:22pm]
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