DUNEDIN — For nearly 20 years, dozens of park benches have dotted a 2-mile stretch of the Dunedin Causeway, starting at Rotary Park near Gary Circle and continuing along both sides of the narrow expanse all the way to Honeymoon Island.
Paid for by residents, business owners and nonprofit organizations, the benches were originally made of wood and embossed with plaques, often containing heartfelt dedications to loved ones. They provided not just a break for those traveling the causeway by bike or foot; the benches also serve as memorials and gathering spots for families who lost loved ones and for individuals seeking solace and serenity in the scenic surroundings.
"The city has done a magnificent job of facilitating people that wouldn’t be able to walk this causeway without places to stop and rest," Donna Sheridan, a member of the Dunedin Beach Civic Organization who serves as co-chair of the group’s bench restoration committee, said recently. "They know the value of this causeway to the area and they have been exceptionally willing to make it easy for people to take advantage of its natural beauty."
According to civic organization president Norma Tillges, the bench program was established 20 years ago and in that time dozens of donors have shelled out out $800 for the right to place one along the causeway. In fact, the project became so popular city officials decided last year to cap the number of benches at 80.
"It’s an amazing project, and we’ve come a long way," Tillges said. "These benches are very special to so many people."
Unfortunately, the wooden benches deteriorated over time. The city began replacing the old ones with new, sturdier models made of plastic that are guaranteed to last at least 50 yearsSo far, 40 of the 80 have been swapped out. The seats are also being moved out of the foliage near the road and closer to the shoreline along the trail, according to Sheridan.
While she supports the replacement efforts, Sheridan said the task of identifying the names and locations of the bench donors has proven to be a daunting one, and she has spent the better part of the past few years doing online research, making phone calls and sending private messages and emails to anyone who may be connected to the original donors.
"I’ve been doing the bench inventory since 2013, logging the names of those who dedicated them, whether they are wood or plastic, that type of thing," said Sheridan, who moved to the area from Alaska around the time she joined the civic organization. "When they started replacing them, I began reaching out to those who donated them to see if they would like to do the same with the new ones. ... Some of the plaques have been stolen or lost, some of the original donors have died or moved away. I’ve got a list of 40 people who want to place a bench on the causeway, but after the city capped them at 80 last year, I have to put them on a waiting list and see if any come available from the ones where we can’t locate the original donors. I have to tell them we’re full up. Never did we think this project would get so popular where we have a two-year waiting list for people to purchase benches."
Sheridan said she often witnesses the powerful pull of the shoreline seats while she is out picking up bags of trash along the causeway.
"One day I was pretty much totally tired from walking the causeway, and I saw a young lady putting flowers by a bench and wiping it off," she said, noting the bench was dedicated to the woman’s deceased sister. "She gave me the biggest hug and thanked me and said coming here gave her peace. And I said, ‘that’s why I’m doing this.’ It warmed my heart."
While preparing to photograph the benches near the southeast entrance to the causeway, Rena Dickson was sitting quietly to one side of a new model, contemplating the scenery on a tranquil February afternoon. Dickson explained she has been coming to the spot ever since her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few months ago.
"I’m here to release the heavy emotions and emotional burdens that I’ve been having since I learned my dad was about to pass," Dickson said. "I come out here to find peace and re-energize and recharge and gather my wits, because I feel safe here."
When told about the history of the benches and the restoration project that is underway, Dickson was quick to respond.
"Tell whoever is in charge of the project that the purpose they invented these benches for has been fulfilled."