TARPON SPRINGS — It was news no one wanted to hear.
Residents and tourists alike were shocked Monday when they heard the beach at Fred Howard Park was going to close temporarily for bridge reconstruction.
Where else could they swim, fish and Jet Ski all in one spot without spending a dime?
"We might just have to hang out in Mom and Dad's pool more," said Jose Martinez, 40.
Jose Martinez used to live in Palm Harbor and comes back to the area often with his wife and three children from their home in Richmond, Va. With its clean beach and family-friendly atmosphere, Howard Park is the place to go, he said.
The causeway and beach will be closed for about 15 months beginning in September so crews can rebuild two aging bridges that have been battered by tides and cars for 40 years, said park supervisor Bob Zakrzewski.
Demolition and reconstruction is scheduled to begin Sept. 2, the day after Labor Day.
The closing may be inconvenient for beachgoers for the next year or so, but safety is paramount, Zakrzewski said.
"Once it's open, it's open and we're good for another 40 years," he said.
The causeway and beach will be completely off-limits. This means no beach access — by foot, car, bike or boat — and no fishing or boating from the causeway. The water scooter launch area will also be closed.
But visitors can still enjoy the 55-acre mainland park area to the east of the causeway, including the picnic shelters and playgrounds, Zakrzewski said. The canoe and kayak trails will also remain open.
The $4.8-million project is being funded through Penny of Pinellas. ZEP Construction Inc. of Fort Myers provided the lowest bid of 11 submittals, coming in well under the county staff estimate of $5.7-million.
The new bridges will look similar to the existing ones but will be more resistant to erosion by saltwater. Silt barriers will be erected to mitigate damage to the environment and natural wildlife habitats, county officials said.
On Monday, parkgoers said they had no idea the beach was going to be closed at the end of the summer. Though all agreed the bridges should be fixed, many lamented the temporary loss of the free parking and easy beach access that Howard Park offers.
Tarpon Springs resident Michael Fix said he comes to the park every day to fish, swim and picnic with his children. On Monday, Fix was rinsing off after a dip in the gulf with his two black Labs, Maybbie and Blazie.
"This is my refuge," Fix said. "There's going to be some unhappy campers around here, and I'm going to be one of them."
Fix, 46, said he'd do just about anything to keep the beach open during construction. Maybe he'd start a petition, or call his elected officials, he said.
His son, Michael Jr., 15, had another idea.
"I'm going to chain myself to the bridge," he joked.
Rita Farlow can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4162.