DUNEDIN — Late Dunedin City Manager John Lawrence was considered a visionary by some.
During his 21-year tenure — the longest in Dunedin's 113-year history and, at the time of his retirement, in Pinellas County — colleagues and friends say he earned a reputation as a caring employer who steered the city through some of its toughest development challenges.
Most of all, though, he was regarded as an urban planner and avid traveler whose love of walkable European towns figured prominently in the 1980s revitalization of Dunedin's now-bustling downtown.
Six months after his death, a movement is under way to add Lawrence's name to Pioneer Park, a popular downtown Dunedin square that draws thousands each year for farmer's market shopping, festivals and other entertainment.
The 420 Main St. park is steps away from the yellow downtown townhome where Lawrence spent his last years in Dunedin and where he jogged nearly daily along the Pinellas Trail, friends say.
"It just seemed natural" to choose downtown's Pioneer Park, among other potential public spaces, to bear his name, said Assistant Pinellas County Administrator Maureen Freaney. Freaney served alongside Lawrence in city government for more than 20 years before being hired by the county.
Downtown "was kind of the heart of John and I see it as the heart of the city," she said.
City commissioners tonight will consider the "John R. Lawrence Pioneer Park" request, which was spearheaded by Freaney, former city commissioner and businessman Sonny Thornton, Dunedin Historical Society executive director Vinnie Luisi, and former city human resources director Nancy Duggan.
In their proposal, the four held up Lawrence's five-page resume as proof that he achieved "outstanding accomplishments ... for the good of the community," one of the criteria Dunedin commissioners may consider when naming a public facility for an individual.
The group has prepared a photo slide show comparing Dunedin before and after Lawrence's influence. Among the "before" shots: a fire hydrant spewing dirty water in the years before Lawrence instituted basic infrastructure like a water/wastewater plant and empty storefronts illustrating downtown's former reputation as a ghost town.
Lawrence, who retired and moved to Georgia in 2006, died Aug. 26 of liver disease. He was 66.
"There's a lot of people who have made Dunedin what it is. And if you look at those 21 years John was there — mayors, commissioners, community leaders — the thread that ties those years together is the leadership of John Lawrence as city manager," Freaney said. "He provided a stability that really just allowed the city to focus on its needs and make things happen."
"He was a pioneer in many things, in my opinion," Thornton said.
Lawrence's family and several groups around town, including the Dunedin Historical Society's board of directors and citizen volunteers on the city's Parks & Recreation Advisory Board, submitted letters unanimously supporting the renaming effort.
If approved, project planners in April will gather near the park's soundstage pavilion, regarded by friends as one of the last successful projects of Lawrence's Dunedin career, to unveil a historic marker and officially dedicate the space to his memory.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.