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Residents will help shape park project

About 15 residents met with county officials Thursday night at the Lorenzo Hamilton Community Center in Kennedy Park to discuss the future of the abandoned Department of Public Works compound on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The county-owned site, now undergoing a cleanup that could cost as much as $600,000, might one day become a community park offering athletics and a meeting building where educational and public health programs can be housed.

Turning the polluted site into a vital community asset will likely take years. And Thursday's discussion focused primarily on how to realize that vision while involving residents in the process and conforming to county standards of park operation.

For decades, the largely black section of south Brooksville has been neglected by government leaders, some in attendance at the meeting argued. But that could be changing. One area of consensus is that residents will play a significant role in shaping the park project, rather than having terms dictated to them.

"It's up to you as a community to tell us what your needs are," county parks and recreation director Pat Fagan told the group.

Fagan went further and agreed to requests that when the park is finally finished, its management be turned over to a community advisory group.

"The only thing that we ask," Fagan said, "is that whatever you do, it is done right."

At the urging of local NAACP president Frankie Burnett and others, it was agreed that a preliminary conceptual plan will be circulated through the community for comment. Regular meetings will be scheduled between county officials and the public as the site cleanup proceeds.

Those meetings are to be held at Kennedy Park, rather than in the county government building.

The conceptual plan, which officials stressed is just a conversation starter, features two basketball courts, a multipurpose athletic field, a playground and a picnic pavilion.

Going into the discussion, the plan called for keeping a storage building used by the Supervisor of Elections Office at the site. The storage building takes up roughly an acre of the five-acre site, and County Commissioner Nancy Robinson urged her staff to find an alternative location allowing the entire the tract to become a park.

Participants at the meeting also discussed renovation of a larger storage building at the site that could become a community center.

Some in attendance said the area needs a place for youth programs and teen pregnancy education now, not two or three years down the road after the cleanup of the site is complete and a park is built.

Robinson cautioned that the building is not safe for use by the public at this time. It was agreed, however, to organize a tour of the building with residents in the hope that it can be made available before the park is built.

A private firm is now pumping groundwater from a 900-square-foot area to the rear of the site that is polluted by petroleum products. The state Department of Environmental Protection is regulating the cleanup and will determine when contamination levels are no longer considered hazardous.

That effort could take a year, give or take six months, officials say. However, groundwater testing of another area of the site, from which fuel tanks were recently removed, should begin this month. That area may also need to be cleaned up.

After the meeting, Michael Brown, president of the Brooksville Buffalo Soldiers, said he was pleased and optimistic about the project's future.

"Any time people come together you are making progress," Brown said. "I think the county commissioners are sincere about this process."

_ Will Van Sant can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansantsptimes.com.

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