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Park along Joe's Creek to begin at long last

(ran West edition)

Community activists who have long lobbied the county for a park along Joe's Creek have endured a roller coaster ride of high hopes and dashed expectations.

Even the latest good news _ Pinellas County plans to begin work on the project next month _ was tainted by bad news: Negotiations to purchase adjacent land have broken down. Activists wanted the county to buy the 7.9-acre parcel to round off the park.

"This Joe's Creek thing has been going on for four years," said Ray Neri, president of the Lealman Community Association. The group led the fight for a new park in the unincorporated area.

"We've had one bump after another," Neri said. "This is the latest bump."

Still, Neri was thrilled by the news that the first work could begin next month. The land is nestled north of 46th Avenue N between the railroad tracks and 45th Street.

The first work could include part of an asphalt path that would eventually circle the acreage, and a 120-foot pedestrian bridge across Joe's Creek to get people to a pond that takes up much of the northwestern portion of the land, according to a draft plan presented Wednesday to the Lealman Community Association.

The total cost is estimated at $200,000. Of that, about $30,000 will go for the bridge, $50,000 for fencing, and the rest for the asphalt path.

"That's all we really have money for right now," said Gay Lancaster, assistant county administrator.

In the future, restrooms and a parking area are scheduled for the western side of the park.

Other plans include a car and pedestrian bridge on the eastern sector of the park and a larger parking lot with additional restrooms. A community center and observation decks are possibilities, said Charles Norwood, the county's director of geographic services.

Lealman activists began lobbying for a park there about four years ago, when the county began a redevelopment program in the midsection of east Lealman. East Lealman is the unincorporated area roughly between Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg east of Kenneth City.

The redevelopment team wanted to create more green space in the area, reasoning that a park would improve the quality of life for Lealman residents and encourage private development.

"This was the cornerstone on which the community would look with a great deal of pride," Neri said. "Everything else we do will spin off from that."

Their goal was (and still is) for the county to buy the adjoining acreage so the park would be large enough for pickup ballgames, a community center and walking trails.

At first county officials were reluctant to even consider buying the land, once the site of the Frontier Recycling Plant, because it has contaminated soil.

The contamination is a byproduct of a fluid used in dry cleaning, but it is about 30 feet below the surface, Neri said. He and others argued that the contamination was not an issue because it was so deep and the soil would not be disturbed.

County officials agreed to consider buying the land. But they wanted to do another test to make sure the contamination would not be a problem in the future.

Lancaster said the owner refused to allow the test.

Norwood held out a small bit of hope for the future, though.

"The . . . property is off the table for now," he said Wednesday.

The mention of "for now" pleased Neri, who said that adding the land was "central" to activists' vision of the park.

A park for Lealman

For the past several years, activists in the Lealman area have lobbied the county hard for a park on county-owned land along Joe's Creek. Negotiations for an adjacent parcel fell through but the county plans to begin developing its property for a park.