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City budget cuts threaten McGough Nature Park in Largo

The McGough Nature Park in Largo is home to live reptile exhibits, owls and a turtle pond.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2009)

The McGough Nature Park in Largo is home to live reptile exhibits, owls and a turtle pond.

It's a hot Thursday, and Walsingham Road is its usual sunbaked drag, the McDonald's and KFC drive-throughs along it clogged.

But a few blocks from the bridge to Indian Rocks, next to the shimmering Intracoastal Waterway, is a hamlet of what Pinellas County once was, tall pines and palmettos, still pristine amid the strip mall stretches that so much of the county has become.

Trails there wind through pine-scented hammock, butterflies the size of a man's fist flutter in the sunlight, and banks of wildflowers spring from the soil in the shade.

The din of cars is stifled by the trees. A boardwalk that juts through mangrove thickets is as quiet as the egrets that stalk the shore.

While Largo has many outdoor attractions, the McGough Nature Park is one of the city's most complete, its nature center stocked with live reptile exhibits, a great horned owl enclosure and a nearby turtle pond to add something extra to the park's education programs.

But as Largo faces its fourth consecutive year of budget cuts, the paradise of McGough could soon be deprived of its centerpiece — the Nature Center — that is treasured by many residents.

Visiting the center for, like, the "thousandth" time, Dathan Catlin, 6, peers at the albino rat snake kept under glass inside the center.

"Look! It's moving!" he shouts.

"Don't tap the glass," says his mom, Danielle Lemons.

Dathan's favorite exhibit, though, is the replica of a sandhill crane, a red-headed bird that stands taller than he does.

Hearing the child from her office, Barbara Stalbird smiles.

"That's the heart of it," she said.

In the coming months, Stalbird, who has been directing the center for seven years, may no longer have a job, along with one other part-time employee.

The cost to keep the center for another year is about $120,000, though through various programs and donations, the park generates about $68,000 in revenue. That means the city needs to come up with $52,000 or so to keep it going. But with each city department forced to make difficult choices, closing the Nature Center has become the lesser of several evils.

"They have to find the money from somewhere," Stalbird said.

Some residents have written letters, pleading for Largo leaders to find a way to keep the center open.

"Please don't close McGough Nature Center," wrote Cynthia Stone, a teacher at Anona Elementary School. "It is a favorite place of our family to go. We love to visit the turtles and see the owl and all the great exhibits. Please, please don't close this wonderful park."

But other city residents feel the city shouldn't be spending money on anything but necessities, like the fire and police departments.

"Anything beyond those duties are considered luxuries," Newell Toth wrote in a letter to commissioners. "I take great offense at everyone having a big party on my dime when I am struggling."

Parks director Joan Byrne said the Nature Center is on the reduction list her department sent to the city. But over the next several months, as commissioners decide what to finally cut, it could be saved.

"At any point between now and the end of September, anything in that document could change," Byrne said.

Lemons said she hopes so.

"There's not a lot of places like this where kids can get an education about the outdoors," Lemons said. "This place is really fun and great in everything that matters."

Dominick Tao can be reached at dtao@sptimes.com or (727) 580-2951.

City budget cuts threaten McGough Nature Park in Largo 06/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 11, 2010 4:46pm]
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