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Renovated park will carry boy's memory

Nicholas Vasquez loved playing at Seminole City Park.

The favorite part of the 3-year-old boy's weekly visits was seeing the animals, said his father, Luis Vasquez.

"He liked feeding the ducks," Vasquez said.

But when the park reopens Saturday after being closed seven months for renovations, Nicholas won't be there. He died in January when he was accidentally strangled in a pull chain dangling from vertical blinds in his Seminole home.

His parents, Luis and Nikki Vasquez, and their 5-year-old son, Peter, will attend a celebration Saturday to mark the park's reopening. The free event will feature a dedication ceremony, concert, family activities and a barbecue.

The Vasquezes will be recognized for their donation of playground equipment in honor of Nicholas. A plaque memorializing him rests on the small play station where toddlers can climb a few stairs and slide to the ground.

The piece of equipment is part of the park's $1.1-million facelift that includes a $110,000 band shell with lighting and sound equipment, a $3,780 fountain that floats in Meares Pond and $95,000 in landscaping that includes sod, hibiscus and crape myrtle. The project was funded through Penny for Pinellas, a 1 percent sales tax to pay for infrastructure improvements throughout the county, and a state grant.

"We're all very anxious to open the park so the public can enjoy it," said Mitch Bobowski, the city's general services director.

Other new features in the park are:

An aluminum picket fence surrounding the 10-acre property.

15 picnic tables, 11 grills and nine benches.

Three playground areas with swings, slides and a jungle gym.

Sidewalks.

Terraced seating in front of the band shell.

A bike rack.

A shade structure.

38 decorative light poles.

105 tons of recycled tire mulch in playground areas.

Teal and tan paint on the exterior of City Hall.

Two "doggie waste stations," which are basically garbage cans and plastic bags for the waste.

The highlight of the project is the band shell, a much-improved structure over the wooden one it replaced. Electricity and lighting fixtures will be a welcome sight to the bands that will perform there.

Local guitarist Molten Mike, a songwriter who plays funk, blues and jazz, will entertain the crowd Saturday. His audience will be able to sit on the grass or in lawn chairs on newly terraced grounds in front of the stage.

Ron Morris, 16, sat on the band shell's stage Monday morning. The Largo High School junior said he lives on 113th Street in Seminole but didn't know the park existed until recently.

"Now that I know where it is, I'll come down here and hang out with my friends," he said. "It's a nice park with a lot of shaded areas. If they put a basketball court here, I'll come here more often."

There will be no basketball court at Seminole City Park, but Ron and others can shoot baskets at courts at Blossom Lake Park and the Seminole Recreation Complex. However, the city plans to put a sand volleyball court at Seminole City Park.

A new drinking fountain will available for users of the park and the Pinellas Trail, which runs along the western border of the park. The fountain was donated by the St. Pete Mad Dog Triathlon Club and friends and family of Jim Ward of Seminole, who died in September at age 83 while on a training ride on the Pinellas Trail.

Ward, known as "Mad Dog No. 10," was a 10-time world champion in his age group and at age 77 had become the oldest athlete to finish the most difficult triathlon of all, the Ironman in Hawaii. He often did training rides on the Pinellas Trail.

Club member Roger Burke said the idea for the fountain came from Ward's statement that clean air and water are life's two most important things. "Jim was an American hero," Burke said. "He showed that anyone can do a triathlon."

Much of the work in the park was done underground, Bobowski said. The city buried all of the utility lines and spent $380,000 to improve a stormwater drainage system, he said.

When the renovation project began in January, some residents became concerned when they saw some of the park's old oak trees being uprooted. Bobowski said the city preserved all of the park's healthy trees and hired an arborist to trim them.

"Some had to be removed because they were diseased," he said.

Seminole City Park is the third park in Seminole that has been renovated in the past year. At Blossom Lake Park, workers added a fitness trail, playground equipment, new basketball courts, an area for pickup softball or football games, picnic tables, water fountains and charcoal grills. The $400,000 project was paid for with grants and Penny for Pinellas taxes.

Seminole also spent $257,000 to add two courts, a fitness trail, picnic shelters and a children's play area to its Tennis Club Park on 113th Street.

The city has the Meares family to thank for the park, which is home to City Hall. The family sold the 10 acres to the city in 1974. The new band shell will carry the name of the Meares family, in honor of Albert Stephens Meares, an Englishman who settled on the land in the 1870s.

Like many children who have seen the new playground equipment at the park, Peter Vasquez is eagerly awaiting Saturday's opening.

"He can't wait to get there," said his father, Luis.

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