CLEARWATER — As the summer season of scrutinizing the city's budget begins, City Council members have weighed in on a different type of green: parks.
Should the city continue along its decade-old path of lots of small neighborhood parks, or, like Largo has with Largo Central Park, focus on creating signature regional parks?
Clearwater has 109 parks, including mini-parks with a few benches and some shade. That's a lot to maintain and might not be the best bang for the buck, especially considering manpower and budget reductions over the past several years, said Kevin Dunbar, the city's parks and recreation director.
"Go to some of our neighborhood parks — you'll find them empty," Dunbar said.
But some of the city's larger recreational facilities — the Long Center, for instance — have their own challenges, said Bill Jonson, a council member who said he wants to maintain neighborhood parks that are within an easy walk for families across the city.
When he takes his young granddaughter to Long's huge playground, Jonson said, "It's kind of overwhelming."
Park culture has changed over the years, said Felicia Leonard, the department's administrative support manager. Small parks with a swing and a jungle gym are increasingly shunned for destination parks such as the Long Center. People are more willing to drive their kids to a park that will keep them busy for an extended period of time, she said.
At issue is the city's 2002 Parks and Recreation master plan. The department has a roughly $21 million budget and 207 employees. Halfway through the 20-year plan, Dunbar said, the city should take a look at which direction it wants to go.
Mayor George Cretekos wants to make Crest Lake Park a destination. Some things should be done right away: improving the entrance and sprucing up the grass and lighting, he said.
But residents are in for a surprise if Crest Lake becomes a busy regional park, said Vice Mayor Paul Gibson.
"It's not going to be a quiet neighborhood park. Once this genie is out of the bottle . . . they'll have to live with it," Gibson said.
Other ideas bounced around during the council's work session Friday included a bike-share program, community gardens and other "trending" cultural attractions that might draw more young urban professionals to the city — a consistently high item on the council's wish list.
The Parks and Recreation department plans a six-month outreach to city residents through community forums, mailings, online feedback and a stakeholder committee to find out what type of park system would be the best fit.
Administrators hope the results will be ready by the end of the year, Leonard said.
Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago. To write a letter to the editor, visit the website tampabay.com/letters.