LARGO — Claudette Nowicki of Largo is 75 years old and is an avid user of the Pinellas Trail. Here's how she gets her bike onto the trail from her neighborhood:
"If you want to ride on the trail," she said, "you have to get off your bicycle and crawl on your hands and knees across a ditch and drag your bicycle with you."
The Pinellas Trail is 34 miles long, and 3 miles of it cut north-south through Largo. But some of the Largo portion of the trail looks a little unloved.
City officials say there's a shortage of access points where Largo riders can get on and off the trail. Instead, there are weedy drainage ditches running alongside the path.
Also, other cities like Dunedin and Tarpon Springs have attractive shopping and dining districts that cluster around the well-used trail and benefit from its presence.
But not Largo.
Now the city is gearing up to do something about all this. Despite some skepticism that bicyclists and joggers on the trail will want to stop off in Largo, the city is drawing up plans for a better-designed connection with the trail that will make it more inviting for people to leave the trail and visit Largo.
Officials unveiled the plans at a well-attended public forum last week. Residents examined renderings showing a series of seven new access points to the trail around the area where a trail overpass crosses West Bay Drive west of Clearwater-Largo Road. Small bridges or culverts would provide a way to cross over drainage ditches.
Also, two trailheads would be created, with amenities including benches, bike racks, shade trees, trash cans and water fountains. A strip of parking spaces would be provided along 12th Street SW next to the trail. The trail overpass would be repainted to brand it as part of downtown Largo.
There's a McDonald's next to the trail crossing on West Bay, a shopping center with a Publix and several medical buildings. The city wants to link the trail to its downtown district, which is a few blocks to the east.
The most common question from people at the forum was: How soon can this happen?
The answer: Two or three years.
Last year, the Largo City Commission approved spending $80,000 to design the project. At a public meeting next month, commissioners will be asked to approve its construction. Some engineering work would be done before shovels started turning dirt.
Curtis Holmes was the only commissioner to oppose the project. He also was the only commissioner to attend last week's forum.
Holmes, who frequently rides the Pinellas Trail, believes the spot where it crosses West Bay is too far from downtown and has little to offer riders and pedestrians.
However, city officials also list a nearby farmers market, antique stores and restaurants as possible destinations for trail users. City leaders envision the West Bay Drive area as an active downtown district, and the improved Pinellas Trail access would aim to bring more people to events in Largo Central Park, less than a mile away.
Right now, trail users can ride over the overpass and miss the downtown area completely, notes Tom Morrissette, president of the Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce.
The trail project's price tag has dropped since it was first proposed. When city staffers first brought it to commissioners in 2011, they proposed acquiring land and spending more than $1.3 million. The cost has now dropped to about $530,000, and the city will seek federal funding through Pinellas County's Metropolitan Planning Organization.
"The beauty of this project is, we do not have to acquire property," said Teresa Brydon, the city's economic development manager. "This is going to be our western welcome to downtown."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.