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City park grows into attraction

Largo Central Park, along with the library and Cultural Center, has become a magnet for those seeking recreation.

The 32 acres near East Bay Drive and Seminole Boulevard were a bed of dirt topped with old warehouses and a packing plant several years ago. Some people drove by without ever noticing it. Those who did didn't like what they saw.

Then came Largo Central Park.

"Before the park, I didn't like the area at all, really," said Sari Jensen, a Largo resident and school teacher. She had even considered moving away. Not now.

Jensen and her mother, Jackie Jensen, have become regulars. They walk their dogs in the evenings and sometimes chat with other dog owners and kids. They stop by the library, also in the park complex along with the Largo Cultural Center.

The park, which cost Largo about $5.5-million in land acquisition and construction costs over nearly two decades, has had a massive impact on the city's purse. But the effect is more profound, perhaps, on its people.

Last year, more than 100,000 people stopped by, according to city records. They watched their children swing and run in the playground, walked trails for exercise, went inline skating, held birthday parties, rode miniature trains and wrote poetry.

Some feel strongly that Central Park is among Largo's greatest achievements.

This, Jensen said, has given people someplace to go. "It's not just a bedroom community for Tampa workers or St. Pete workers," she said.

Jean Edwards, a resident who took her three grandchildren to the park at least three times last week, said she couldn't remember what was on the property before.

Now, "I like it," said Edwards, watching the kids play on dinosaurs, run and slide one recent afternoon, under shade from towering oak trees. "It's cool here."

On any given evening, she might pass Andre Blunt, a Largo resident who spends much of his time writing poetry. Sitting on a bench or walking the park's trails clears his mind, he said.

Carol Cortright and her co-workers walk around the park for exercise during her afternoon break from work at the library.

Once each month, the park is swamped with grandparents, parents and kids eager to ride miniature trains.

Then there are the parents who flock to the shaded playground area with equipment for disabled children. The park and the library seem to go hand in hand, said Recreation and Parks Director Cathy Santa. Parent groups often plan their days around a trip to a preschool program at the library, playtime at the playground and a picnic in the park.

Since the park opened, the Largo Library has had to increase the number of preschool programs that it offers, said library director Barbara Murphey.

People like Largo's playground because it is enclosed with heavy gates that make it hard for young children to wander away. And the oak trees shade the area.

"You don't really realize how much there is to do here," said Karen Scott, a resident with four young boys. "A lot of parks you go to, you're sitting in the broiling sun."

Bonnie Adams, whose husband Kimball is the city's chief financial officer, said she frequents the park, whether it be inline skating with her young daughter or going on an outing with church members.

Residents say they are excited about the city's plans for more park property on the east side of Largo Central Drive. Plans are under way to develop another 130 acres of land to the east of Central Park Drive for a nature preserve and stormwater treatment facility. Renovations there are expected to cost about $4-million over the next several years.

"I think that the City Commission showed a lot of foresight when they designed this," Jensen said.

The park didn't come easily. It took more than a decade of fundraising, talking, planning and replanning before the Military Court of Honor, the miniature trains, the shelters, fountains and walkways came to be.

Residents and business owners, including a group called Partners N Progress, were integral in pushing for the park and raising money to support it. About $230,000 came from now-deceased Largo resident Priscilla Rugg alone.

Contributions continue to roll in. Private donations will pay for planned sculptures throughout the park in coming years. The city takes in about $30,000 from park and shelter rentals, Santa said.

"That's why I feel the park was so successful, because there was so much community pride in developing it," Santa said. "It never was a piece of ground with a tree stuck on it that the city built."

In many ways, Largo Central Park has become what Ulmer Park used to be. Ulmer, less than a mile away on West Bay Drive, was the core of Largo's downtown where major city events were held decades ago. But with downtown redevelopment under way, officials have turned their attention to Central Park. Within a year's time, part of Ulmer Park may give way to the West Bay road widening project. Officials plan to sell the rest of the park, along with surrounding property, to a developer that has yet to be chosen.

Some residents, however, are organizing to save Ulmer Park, saying that it has one thing Largo Central doesn't _ a history in old Largo.

Jensen had another concern with regard to Central Park and Largo's redevelopment plan. The Largo Police Department building, now directly across the street from the park, will move to Highland Avenue. She believes the police presence has cut down on the potential for crime.

Since January, police have stopped by the complex including the park, library and cultural center more than 100 times. The overwhelming majority, however, were officers who stopped in the complex to complete paperwork, control traffic at special events and perform other routine patrol duties, said spokesman Mac Williams.

Officers have investigated about 20 reports since January in that area, including juvenile mischief, truancy, vagrants and burglary, Williams said.

Last March, a juvenile and an adult were arrested after police said they beat a 64-year-old man with a sledgehammer outside the library as the man walked to his car.

Santa said she does not expect the police relocation to have a major impact on park safety. Activity at the library, which is open until 9 p.m. most nights and the cultural center, will discourage mischief. She noted that the park is surrounded by heavy traffic on East Bay and Seminole.

"There's hundreds of cars that go by there on a regular basis," Santa said.