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Fort De Soto's dog destination struts its scruff in bad economy

Southern Living once called the dog park at Fort De Soto Park one of the South’s five best. Workers have cut back on mowing.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2005)

Southern Living once called the dog park at Fort De Soto Park one of the South’s five best. Workers have cut back on mowing.

TIERRA VERDE — A few calls came in last week about the Paw Playground at Fort De Soto Park.

Concerns varied from why the grass hadn't been mowed in weeks to whether the cash-strapped county was planning to close the playground.

But tall grass wasn't limited to the 3-acre fenced dog park. It was also visible throughout the 1,136-acre park, particularly near some of its other amenities.

"It's not nearly as nice as it used to be," said Michael Cohen of St. Pete Beach, who regularly visits the park with Sunny, a 9-month-old schipperke.

When I visited Fort De Soto last week, it was clear that the dog playground, which includes a dog beach, is not as pristine as it was when Southern Living named it one of the South's five best dog parks. But a bad economy and budget cuts have a way of shining a light on wear and tear.

On that day, the grass had been cut and the shower in the area for large dogs — a source of some complaints — was working.

"We're in a cycle right now where we're only mowing every three weeks," said Jim Wilson, the park's supervisor since 1998. "There are going to be some inconveniences, but we're not closing."

Wilson, who has worked for Pinellas County for more than 30 years, has seen many changes in recent years.

"Some people have become a little spoiled," he said. "The dogs that come here don't notice the grass."

Most visitors with dogs spend the day at the beach, Wilson said.

"The dog beach is 10 times more popular than the dog park," he said. "On the weekend there will be 20 dogs in the park but 200 on the beach. We're the only dog beach, unless you include Gandy, which I don't consider a beach."

As far as overgrowth is concerned, the recent weather is part of the problem.

"We had 5 inches of rain over the Fourth of July holiday," said Wilson. "We mowed before the holiday, then had four straight days of rain and an unseasonably warm drying period, which results in accelerated growth — not a very good combination."

Budget cuts and a county hiring freeze are also to blame.

"We used to have 68 employees, and now we're down to 28," Wilson said. When the next fiscal year begins Oct. 1, "everything is going to be revisited."

Two years ago, the park had a staff of eight to maintain the grounds. Today, the park relies on volunteers — who are not as plentiful in the summer — and roving crews from the county. In the county's south region, the roving crew is responsible for Fort De Soto, the Pinellas Trail and all beach access areas.

But the staff shortage and extended periods of tall grass don't seem to bother some visitors.

Rebecca Bokuniewicz of St. Petersburg, who visits regularly with Madison, a 2-year-old black Labrador, said "the shower heads usually break, but the park staff is pretty good about fixing them."

Others agree. St. Petersburg residents Zack Ament and Matt Stevens became regular park visitors a few months ago.

"It's all minor stuff. It's not like it's anything that would make us not want to come here," said Ament.

• • •

The Pinellas County Job Corps Center, which sat empty for months, will soon have several events to welcome residents and the business community to the 21-acre site.

The facility at 22nd Street and Fifth Avenue S in Midtown will host a careers and vendor information session in mid August.

ResCare, the Kentucky company that will operate the center, is also planning a community information forum and open house in mid to late September.

Once staff training is complete, the first students will start arriving on the campus in November. Interested students can contact Carolyn Michael at (727) 608-2492 or

Sandra J. Gadsden is assistant metro editor/community news. She can be reached at or at (727) 893-8874.

Fort De Soto's dog destination struts its scruff in bad economy 07/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 23, 2010 5:56pm]
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