LARGO — City Commission members here have taken the first step to building a bird hospital and rehabilitation center at George C. McGough Nature Park.
The proposed complex would be a partnership between the newly formed Suncoast Bird Rescue and the city. Under the plan, the city would provide space. The rescue would provide all funding and oversee the operation of the center, which would be open to the public. The rescue would pay $1 annually to lease the park land.
"I love the idea of doing it," Largo Mayor Pat Gerard said during a workshop Tuesday. "I know there was a lot of interest in the park even before this from birders and people that would really support the project."
Commission member Harriet Crozier agreed, saying, "I think it's very exciting, and I don't think you'll have any problems with the neighborhood because they're absolutely animal lovers."
Commission members unanimously gave the go-ahead to negotiate a contract between the city and the rescue.
Plans are to locate the rescue on the southeast corner of McGough, 11901 146th St. N. Also known as "the turtle park," McGough is a bit more than 37 acres and already houses a turtle deck, butterfly garden, enclosures for birds of prey, a playground and picnic pavilions. A boardwalk offers the chance to stroll through the shady oak hammock or through the mangroves along the Intracoastal Waterway. A nature center houses live animal exhibits, hands-on activities for children and environmental education programs.
"The partnership would provide educational displays for the public visiting McGough Park and would attract a significant number of new visitors," said Greg Brown, Largo parks superintendent. "The addition of a bird rehabilitation facility and flight cages is consistent with the existing displays at McGough."
Under the proposal, the rescue would build a 2,500-square-foot, air-conditioned main hospital and gift shop. A refrigerated bait hut, flight cages, display cages and boardwalk would also be constructed. One portion of the complex would be off-limits to visitors, because federal regulations bar display of certain birds that will be returned to the wild.
"We're looking for them to have funding before they get going on the project," Brown said.
Suncoast Bird Rescue was formed by Robin Vergara, a former employee of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, 18382 Gulf Blvd. That organization, founded in 1971 by zoologist Ralph Heath, grew into one of the top avian rehabilitation centers in the world, serving about 10,000 birds a year, according to its website, seabirdsanctuary.com. Over the years, the sanctuary attracted thousands of visitors, volunteers and workers. Largo city Commissioner Curtis Holmes and his wife volunteered there. Commissioner Woody Brown was a biologist at the sanctuary in the 1990s, and Commissioner Jamie Robinson said he had delivered fish there to be used for bird food.
But for all its successes, the sanctuary has had financial ups and downs. In the past year or so, the fiscal picture has been dismal. Last year, the federal government filed three liens totaling about $186,726 for unpaid payroll taxes. The U.S. Department of Labor said the sanctuary had left some employees unpaid for weeks. The sanctuary agreed to pay $21,336 in back wages. This year, a mortgage holder filed notice that he plans to foreclose on a sanctuary-owned warehouse on Starkey Road. And the state filed a tax lien of about $7,684 for failure to pay unemployment taxes.
The sanctuary announced at the end of January that it could no longer take in sick and injured birds, but that it intended to stay open. More recently, it closed its hospital but remains open for tours and is still fundraising in an effort to turn things around.
When the hospital closed, the sanctuary also lost Barbara Suto, a nationally known biologist who worked for 30 years rehabbing birds. Suto joined Suncoast Bird Rescue and serves as the organization's treasurer. Vergara, the rescue's executive director, said Suto's presence will help reassure donors that the finances of the new group are handled responsibly.
Vergara said the rescue is not yet accepting donations even though it is officially a nonprofit. The checks and balances are not in place yet, he said, to ensure that the financial dealings of the organization will be easily available to all. The goal, he said, is to make sure the new rescue is "run well, managed well, clean and very transparent."
Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.