Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Steinle: At long last, a plan to build Safety Harbor park

It can be hard to make dreams a reality. Safety Harbor is learning just how hard.

Two years after the city snapped up 13 vacant waterfront acres on the Old Tampa Bay shoreline when the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa filed for bankruptcy, there's finally a plan to start building a public park. But it didn't come easily.

After the purchase was completed for $2.75 million, residents enthusiastically offered their ideas for what should be built there. An observation tower, splash park, kayak launch, band shell, floating docks, a parking garage, a seafood restaurant and trails were among their ideas.

The city appointed a Waterfront Park steering committee to pick from all the ideas. Six months of meetings, and the committee recommended development in three phases. Phase 1: a parking lot, beach, trails and a band shell. Phase 2: boardwalks, kayak/canoe launch, splash park, terraced seating. Phase 3: transient boat docks and maybe a public plaza.

Then, reality intruded. The waterfront park plan would cost more than $6 million. Debate erupted over how much should be spent, where the money should come from and how quickly the park should be developed. Residents disagreed over whether the park should be passive or active. Leadership on the City Commission changed in the last election. Time rolled by.

Which is how we got to this summer.

The City Commission recently met to hammer out a plan for the land that stretches like a green ribbon from the city marina to Mullet Creek. City staff had cobbled together a budget of $2.25 million — $400,000 in parkland funds, $100,000 from Penny for Pinellas, $150,000 in community redevelopment funds, and $1.6 million borrowed from city reserves. The city also has won $247,000 in grants.

Mayor Andy Steingold resisted borrowing from city reserves and advocated a much-reduced first phase with just site preparation, shoreline stabilization and a trail for around $1 million. But City Manager Matt Spoor said about all you could do for $1 million was grade the property and put in sod and irrigation. He suggested that if the commission wasn't willing to spend the $2.25 million, it should just shelve any development for now.

Commissioner Carlos Diaz objected to waiting or cutting out all amenities. It's already been two years, he said, and "We want to be proud of what we put together."

In the end, the commission actually approved a plan — by laboriously voting on one item at a time. With pencils and calculators, they kept a running total. They voted unanimously to do basic site preparation and stormwater improvements, a trail along the waterfront, a boardwalk through the wetlands, a small parking lot on the north end of the property and installation of sod and irrigation. Total cost: $1.75 million.

It's really tough for officials to figure out which dreams to make real, especially with a limited purse. Safety Harbor has learned that with its waterfront park. St. Petersburg has learned that with the Pier.

Now, finally, Safety Harbor is on the way. St. Petersburg? Still waiting.

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