ST. PETERSBURG — Almost two years ago, the man who designed a landscape to complement the Dalí Museum's uncommon architecture sought the blessing of a City Council committee to bring dazzle to downtown waterfront parks.
What Phil Graham Jr. proposed was a foundation whose funds would augment a dwindling parks budget that could no longer can afford such luxuries as frequent planting of showy annuals.
Money from the recently formed Downtown Waterfront Parks Foundation — already in receipt of inaugural donations — will benefit much of the parkland stretching from Flora Wylie Park at North Shore Drive at 13th Avenue NE to Poynter Park at 1000 Third St. S.
Plans include accentuating entrances and other key areas with colorful blooms, as well as camouflaging, relocating and burying unsightly utility boxes. There's talk of providing money for capital improvements such as splash pads and spots for park users of varying ages and physical abilities.
"But the primary reason for this is to augment the city's maintenance of the parks, because they just don't have enough money," Graham said.
"If they can succeed in raising money to help us improve the parks, that would be wonderful," Council chairman Karl Nurse said. "One of the challenges typically has been the groups that have come forward with proposed projects have struggled to raise money, but we should always try that."
The park foundation concept is not unusual in these economic times, said Clarence Scott, the city's leisure and community services administrator.
"When you are talking shrinking resources, there are appropriate opportunities to augment dwindling funds," he said. "It's a help."
The parks and recreation department benefits from several special funds, including the Helen Smith Fund to provide swim lessons to children who can't afford them; money raised by teen councils at recreation centers for special trips; and bequests to Office on Aging programs at the Sunshine Senior Center and the Enoch Davis Recreation Center.
There's also the Weeki Wachee Fund. Created when the city sold a 440-acre recreation area along Weeki Wachee Springs in Hernando County, it is designated for parks and recreation beautification and preservation. An ordinance mandates control by City Council and use only for new projects, Scott said. More recently, the fund is being used to create a $1.7 million park at the former Rio Vista Elementary School property and for shade structures for athletic complex bleachers citywide.
The new foundation will be the second to benefit city parks. The long-established Pioneer Park Foundation — Graham sits on the board — contributed $46,900 to the recent facelift of the park at Central Avenue and Beach Drive NE. Though Pioneer Park sits on the waterfront, it will not receive funds from the new foundation, though the two volunteer groups might work together on fundraising, Graham said.
Specifically, he said, the new foundation will use its money to enhance "high focal areas" such as at park signs and along Second Avenue NE — "the gateway to the Pier" — with flowers and other elements.
"At the corner of Beach Drive and Second Avenue, one of the main connectors, there's just a plethora of utility boxes and big shrubs," he said.
Graham, senior principal of Phil Graham Landscape Architecture, also envisions resplendent blooms at Fourth Avenue NE as it runs into North Straub Park and on Beach Drive along South Straub Park.
"We could do a better job at making those gateways more attractive," he said. "There was a time when we had a nice floral experience going up Second Avenue, going up to the Pier."
Parks and recreations department director Sherry McBee, the city's liaison to the new foundation, said the department once planted annuals four times a year, but in the past decade or so gradually reduced the frequency of seasonal plantings. The department has come to depend more on perennials, she said, admitting that they "just don't have the vibrant pop" of annuals.
"I think we've been able to do a good job with the money we have, providing nice plantings on the waterfront," she said.
The Downtown Waterfront Parks Foundation, which has applied for federal tax exemption as a nonprofit organization, is preparing to launch a website, Graham said. It also is soliciting the help of groups representing downtown condominiums, businesses and neighborhoods.
Its board of directors includes well known names, among them former Mayor David Fischer — the "tree mayor" — former Mayor Bob Ulrich, JMC Communities chief executive officer Mike Cheezem and Karen Dunlap, president of the Poynter Institute. Supporters include David Feaster, president and chief executive of Cornerstone Bank and 2012 Mr. Sun.
The first major fundraising event, a bocce ball tournament, will be held in March. Several groups have offered to raise money for the foundation's cause, with the St. Petersburg Women's Chamber of Commerce donating $5,000 from its annual luncheon, fashion show and card party.
"This is the kind of thing that cuts through everything else. It's not political," Graham said. "It is something that is near and dear to this community."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The St. Petersburg parks trust funds referred to in a box accompanying this article are supported by their respective funds. An incorrect source was listed in an earlier version.