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Springs now part of county system

Under the shade of an oak tree, Anne Cullen listened to county officials make speeches Friday dedicating the opening of Wall Springs Park.

It brought back a flood of memories.

It was under that same oak tree, she said, that she and her siblings used to sit and collect money from people who came to Wall Springs to picnic on the scenic grounds and to take a dip in spring water that many considered therapeutic.

Fifty cents for kids; 75 cents per adult.

Anne Cullen is the daughter of Mary and Norman Cullen, who bought the Wall Springs property in the 1949 and operated it as an attraction.

Mary Cullen sold the property to the county in 1989. On Friday, county officials unveiled the first phase of park development, which includes restrooms, park benches, bike racks, drinking fountains, a front entrance wall and gate and parking. The cost of the work was $747,000.

It did not include any development around the spring itself, which will remain fenced and off-limits to the public until the next phase of park construction is completed.

Future park development will include picnic shelters, a playground area, a boardwalk and nature trail, more parking and restrooms, a canoe and kayak launch and a 35-foot observation tower.

Anne Cullen said she was sorry that her mother did not live to see the opening of the park. Mary Cullen, who died three years ago, turned away offers from private developers and sold the property to the county so that the public could enjoy it, Anne Cullen said.

"I wish she was here for the opening," Anne Cullen said. "She would have liked this. We are thrilled it's finally open."

"The county does such a really great job with parks," said Anne Cullen's brother, Daniel, one of four siblings who live within just a few blocks of the park. "It is a real asset to the community."

The only drawback to the county's plan, Anne Cullen said, is that swimming will not be permitted. The Cullens closed the spring to swimmers in 1966 because of liability concerns. But that often didn't stop people from swimming there, anyway.

"I can't remember when I didn't swim here," Cullen said. "We love swimming in springs."

In fact, she said, she planned to head to Weeki Wachee Springs in Hernando County on Friday afternoon.

The dedication of the 107-acre park on Friday included remarks from County Commissioner Susan Latvala: "I know many of you have fond memories of visiting the spring," Latvala said. "Thousands of children learned how to swim here."

One of those who learned to swim there was Karen Anne Edwards, a former assistant county attorney who was stabbed to death while vacationing in Boston in 1989. After the initial park dedication, the crowd moved to the other end of the park, where County Attorney Susan Churuti dedicated a memorial sundial along the Pinellas Trail in Edwards' name.

Standing next to an enlarged picture of Edwards on an easel, Churuti delivered a tearful tribute to her former co-worker. She noted that as a real estate specialist in the office, Edwards was instrumental in helping Pinellas County secure purchase of the Wall Springs property. Churuti noted that Friday would have been Edwards' 47th birthday.

Afterward, residents enjoyed refreshments and were led on tours of the park property by park rangers.

The 25th addition to the county park system, Wall Springs is home to such wildlife as river otters, herons, storks, gopher tortoises, various varieties of fish and the occasional eagle. The spring pumps out an average of 4-million gallons per day, always 74 degrees, all year round. The spring feeds several adjacent lakes and is connected to the Gulf of Mexico.

In April, the county commissioners added another 35 acres to the park when they purchased gulf front property owned by Daniel G. McMullen.

"This is a priceless piece of green space being preserved," Latvala said.