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Public/private agreement to operate Spring Hill skate park ends

Russell Young, 16, sails above the half-pipe at Stewy’s SkatePark in January. Last fall, a private group took over the park. On Friday, the county took it back.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Russell Young, 16, sails above the half-pipe at Stewy’s SkatePark in January. Last fall, a private group took over the park. On Friday, the county took it back.

BROOKSVILLE — Last summer, when the Hernando County Commission faced the possibility of closing parks to balance the budget, several organizations stepped forward and agreed to operate parks.

County officials touted the partnerships as an example of the county and community working together to cut government spending.

Months later, one of those partnerships has dissolved.

The organization formed to save Stewy's Skate Park/Pioneer Park from closure has defaulted on its agreement, forcing the county to reclaim the park on Friday.

On Sept. 27, a group call Save Stewy's Skatepark Organization formalized a concessionaire and maintenance agreement with the county. Headed by Theresa Cunningham, the group said it would maintain the park on Pinehurst Drive in Spring Hill and operate the concession stand there.

One provision was that the nonprofit group had to maintain insurance for the park. But that didn't happen, and the insurance lapsed.

On Jan. 31, the county issued a notice to the organization saying it faced a default if the insurance wasn't reinstated. Still, the insurance went unpaid, and on Friday the county took back the park.

"The park will remain open daily to minimize any inconvenience to the general public while the staff evaluates options to bid the skate park concession within Pioneer Park to another qualified entity,'' Ron Pianta, interim county administrator, told commissioners in a memo.

How the skate park came to this point depends on who is telling the story.

Cunningham said the reason for the lapsed insurance was simple.

"When you have no income, you can't pay the bills,'' she said.

Cunningham said promised financial support didn't materialize and neither did income promised from concessions and fundraisers. She blamed the operator of the concession, Amber Costa. She said Costa and a man working with her had agreed to pay the bills, including the insurance bill.

Costa, who has made the park her personal project for the past 10 years, tells a different story. The park is named for her son, Stewart "Stewy" Abramowicz, who died when he was struck by a car as he skateboarded in the street.

In paperwork Costa submitted to the county, she itemizes $1,872 in donations given to Cunningham to maintain the park, along with the $150 a month she paid to rent the concession stand.

Costa said she and fellow park supporter Larry Decker also paid past-due utility bills after discovering that the electric company was preparing to shut off the power.

Costa also provided the county letters of resignation for three of Cunningham's board members, each citing concerns about Cunningham.

The co-chairwoman and treasurer of the group, Deborah Worsley, resigned Jan. 1, saying she had not been involved in collecting money or writing checks for the organization.

"All money decisions were handled by Theresa Cunningham,'' she wrote.

"My goal was to just keep the park open,'' Cunningham said.

She said Costa wanted the power to control the park, even though she didn't want to be part of Cunningham's group, which had the agreement with the county.

As for the funds she did receive, Cunningham said those were spent on supplies to maintain the park and clean and stock the restrooms. She said Costa was responsible for the agreement with the county falling apart because she withheld funds and formed her own nonprofit organization, Stewy's and Cody's Skatepark Inc.

"It hurts because she was my friend. I feel bad she did this to me and she is spreading rumors about me,'' Cunningham said. "I wish it hadn't had to end this way. I wish she would have worked with me and not against me.''

Costa has already submitted a business plan to the county to try to operate the park.

Pianta said she can submit a proposal when the county seeks formal bids in the coming months. In the meantime, county parks and recreation workers will maintain the park while other county workers will inventory the park, assess any damages and prepare the bid specifications.

"We're just trying to keep the users of the park and the kids in mind without a lot of inconvenience or drama,'' Pianta said.

He also said he doesn't see that what has happened at the skate park is an indication of whether public/private partnerships to save money are a shaky initiative.

"This was the only one that I had personal concerns about and the only one we've had any issues with,'' Pianta said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Public/private agreement to operate Spring Hill skate park ends 02/17/12 [Last modified: Friday, February 17, 2012 8:10pm]

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