SAFETY HARBOR — Tucked away in a pocket of Old Florida, just a short stroll from downtown, Mullet Creek crawls unnoticed toward Tampa Bay.
From a distance, it appears pristine. A closer look reveals something else.
Just west of the Philippe Parkway bridge, discarded slabs of concrete erupt from the dirt beneath the trees along the creek's north bank. There's an empty beer can here, some metal piping there, and other garbage lying on the ground. Brazilian pepper, an invasive species, is choking out native plants along the creek's banks.
Here, after a little spring cleaning, the city is planning to reawaken the creek's rustic charm with one of two new parks that focus on natural ambience.
"What we're trying to do is preserve the environmental quality of the creek," said community development director Matt McLachlan.
The city hopes to complete two projects over the next few years on the north bank of the creek, with one on each side of the Philippe Parkway bridge.
The east-side makeover will sit on 2.6 acres of city-owned land at the corner of Church Street and Philippe Parkway. The Church Street project has been in the works since 2008. A trail is projected to be finished by the end of the year and, if state and local grant money is awarded, the park could feature a playground within a few years. Advocates suggest the area could be used as a tool to teach children about plants and animals that are native to Florida.
On the west side of the bridge, the city recently secured the use of a 50-by-500-foot parcel from John Mahan, the property's owner. A trail is to be built there, too. But eventually the city will consider constructing a pedestrian bridge to a city-owned retention pond. This half of the plan, called the Greenway and Trail project, was recently hatched with hopes that it could be an extension of the Church Street park.
This also is where the garbage lies.
City Manager Matt Spoor said the debris has amassed from years of people dumping construction debris and household junk into the creek.
"We're going to clean it up," he said.
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Take a kayak up Mullet Creek and it seems welcoming at first.
Coming into the creek from the bay, you can see ibises roam about the red and black mangroves that line the shore. Some fish can be seen swimming around in the grass flats, where manatees sometimes come to graze.
But no more than a hundred feet in, the creek becomes less photogenic.
A twisted bicycle sticks out of the water. A junked swimming pool slide lies on the bank. Even a shopping cart can be seen through the water, partially buried in the muck. Brazilian pepper trees have sprung up all over.
Ken Bambery is a longtime Safety Harbor resident who takes people out on kayaks on what he calls Tocobaga Tours, named after the American Indians who once called the area home.
He takes his customers from the marina up Safety Harbor's shore to Philippe Park. He only briefly stops at the Mullet Creek basin, advising people not to go up the creek. People wouldn't like what they see, he says.
Farther up the creek, where it begins to bend, the water becomes clearer and very little garbage can be found. With an archway of branches slicing the sunlight and the only hint of man's presence being the back yards of private homes, it's a snapshot of what the whole creek could look like.
"It could be a really nice little creek," Bambery said. "It just needs a little TLC."
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The city's certified arborist has begun to mark which trees will stay and which will be removed. McLachlan said the cleanup of debris, removal of invasive plants and trail construction should be complete by the end of the year for both the Church Street project and the Greenway and Trail project.
According to city officials, construction of parking areas and trails in both projects, complete with benches and informational signs, the cleanup of the creek and a playground in the Church Street project, could cost about $415,000.
The city has not projected a total cost for the Greenway and Trail Project, but he estimated it wouldn't eclipse $15,000. That money will come from previously earmarked community redevelopment funds.
Property owner John Mahan has already agreed to handle the parking lot on the property with crushed shell and mulch for $800. He said he hopes property owners farther up the creek will be willing to contribute to the beautification.
"Hopefully we're doing our part," Mahan said.
City officials hope locals will volunteer to assist in the cleanup.
The Church Street project has been estimated to cost about $400,000, with about $10,000 of that covering the cleanup and the trail. The city is applying for $150,000 in grant funds from Pinellas County to put toward that total, and state grants could also come through.
McLachlan said the city will undertake pieces of the project as money is available, with a trail and parking lot being the priority.
The park design was produced by landscape architect James Montgomery, another local with a passion for his city.
According to city records, in 2008 Montgomery accepted a contract with the city for $10,000 — about $60,000 less than his usual rate — to design several alternatives for the park.
"I love Safety Harbor," he said.
Once the money is there, Montgomery said, the Church Street park could be completed in six to nine months.
For him, the mission isn't just about beautification, but also education. With an emphasis on creating walkways while preserving the natural growth, he sees the planned park as a kind of classroom for children to learn about Florida's natural plant and wildlife.
"We want to provide a living teaching laboratory," he said.
Contact Joey Flechas at email@example.com or (727)445-4167.