Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Opinion

Column: Restored Hercules Park will build stronger community

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Tucked away behind a busy Zephyrhills intersection sits a public embarrassment.

The former Hercules Aquatic Center, once one of the gems of the county park system, is now 16 acres of blight. Beneath the oak trees is an overgrown exercise trail, knocked over barbecue grills, broken glass and a vandalized bathhouse leading to the drained junior-Olympic-sized swimming pool.

It used to hold 273,000 gallons of chlorinated water and came equipped with eight racing lanes, two diving boards and lots of use from high school swim teams. Now, the diving area is filled with mildewed deck chairs, dirty rain water and the red floats that had separated the individual lanes. The high schoolers use the YMCA.

This place doesn't look closed, it looks like it was abandoned by a behind-in-the-rent tenant escaping in the middle of the night. Public access is blocked by a padlocked gate but it hasn't stopped the vandals, the partiers and perhaps the homeless from dropping by for a respite of nature while 18-wheelers rumble past on the nearby highway.

The land, adjacent to Zephyrhills High School, is at the southeast corner of U.S. 301 and County Road 54. It is owned by the Pasco School District but had been used as a county park and swimming pool beginning in 1992. The county built the park with the proceeds from the property-tax-supported bond issue voters approved in 1986. It takes its name from the Hercules Powder Co., which salvaged pine tree stumps for resin and turpentine in the 1940s and '50s and used the site to house its employees.

But the Great Recession stomped all over that historical footnote. Pasco County announced plans to close the pool in 2009 amid budget constraints triggered by falling real estate values and newly enacted property tax breaks for homeowners. The Zephyrhills Police Athletic League stepped in to run the pool in 2010, but couldn't make ends meet. The county ended the contract, drained the pool permanently and returned the land to School District control in 2012.

The question now confronting the Zephyrhills community is whether it is satisfied with no public access — not counting vagrants — to publicly controlled land or whether it can work out an agreement to help the School District's bottom line while preserving space for public recreation.

The School District is proposing to rezone two acres of the land — a low-lying retention area that was never used for on-site drainage — as a commercial site fronting the 301/54 intersection. The land would be surplused and sold to the highest bidder, presumably a convenience store/gas station. In exchange for city rezoning, the School District would donate the remaining acres to the city or a nonprofit foundation for recreation.

So far, Zephyrhills city officials and residents like the idea of a restored park, but not the ongoing expense, and putting a RaceTrac near an exercise trail is verboten in some quarters. It's skewed logic. For starters, the other three corners of U.S. 301 and CR 54 are occupied by commercial stores so it is unreasonable to argue that the fourth corner is sacred and must remain free from development. Besides, a new, similarly sized convenience store in central Pasco County is assessed at $1.5 million which would generate $9,000 for the city of Zephyrhills in annual property taxes. That's a good start toward the operation and maintenance of a restored swimming pool.

City Council member Jodi Wilkeson has suggested an annual assessment to cover the pool costs. She's on the right track, but the city also could consider a line item in its annual budget. Pasco County said it closed the pool to save more than $100,000 annually. It's not an exorbitant cost, particularly in a city that has long desired greater recreation on its north side.

There needs to be some sense of urgency, however. The alternative is further decay of the bathhouse and drained pool, and a growing liability for the School District. A newly appointed citizens advisory committee is scheduled to tour the grounds Dec. 27 and suggest alternatives to the City Council. One idea is to fill in the pool and salvage the bath house site as a public meeting space to be operated by a nonprofit. That should be Plan B.

For Plan A, consider other recent city spending. Zephyrhills has put a significant emphasis on economic development. It consummated a land swap with the private sector to bolster potential development south of the park site, is issuing grants to the private sector for improved downtown aesthetics, and committed $70,000 to contracts with the Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce and Pasco Economic Development Council to boost business recruitment.

The city's youths deserve an investment similar to the help for the city's business community. Failing to restore the Hercules park will simply continue a public embarrassment.

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