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The trail grows cold in our one state park

New Port Richey is entering the fourth and final phase of building amenities at the 80-acre James E. Grey Preserve abutting the Pithlachascotee River. A boardwalk, bridge, parking area and signs are scheduled to be completed in 2007.

Kudos to the city. At least somebody is making progress in turning vacant waterfront land into an asset to be used and enjoyed by nature enthusiasts in west Pasco.

Unfortunately, development of a Florida park in west Pasco cannot match the pace in New Port Richey. Here's a suggestion for Gov.-elect Charlie Crist: How about finishing a project that began in the Bob Martinez administration?

The potential of the 3,400-acre Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park remains untapped. Sitting west of U.S. 19, from the rear of Gulf View Square mall to State Road 52 in Bayonet Point, the land is a largely inaccessible slice of Old Florida amid urbanized west Pasco.

The stagnation is frustrating, particularly since New Port Richey's Grey Preserve progress is so closely tied to the city's success obtaining a grant from the state.

Public use of the Werner-Boyce park would benefit from a similar sense of urgency.

The state began acquiring the park land in 1987. The county obtained the northernmost tract through a state grant and donation from the owners and agreed 10 years ago to manage the land. With its resources tapped out, however, the county turned the entire preserve over to the state a few years later with the understanding it would become Pasco's first state park.

Florida initially spent $3.7-million over two years to acquire additional parcels to add uplands and to allow for a planned entrance from U.S. 19 behind the Sears Service Center at the mall. Five years later, the gateway is still missing even though state officials said at the time the purchase would bring greater public access because of heavy vehicle traffic from the highway.

Likewise, the Florida Division of Recreation and Parks unveiled plans five years ago for a canoe launch, boardwalks across salt marshes, an observation deck and camping area. There was to be 70 to 100 miles of meandering canoe paths, 5 to 10 miles of bicycle and pedestrian trails, a ranger station and information kiosks. The original schedule called for most of the amenities to be available by 2002.

What happened? There are several explanations, including the reduced government spending of the post-Sept. 11 economic downturn and the rearranged priorities stemming from the 2004 hurricane season.

It is understood that education, social services and public safety are more pressing state needs. But five years of unkept promises is long enough.

Florida officials should be embarrassed at a multimillion-dollar state park investment sitting as a fenced marsh and vacant uplands, particularly after the parks division said 18 months ago that $1-million would be requested in the 2006 state budget. If the request was made, it fell upon deaf ears. Pasco's legislative delegation should insist that does not happen again.

The trailhead west of Scenic Drive in Port Richey remains the park's single public access point. Too bad. With relatively minimal state effort, Scenic Drive could be the address for a large-scale scenic park to be enjoyed by more than just a handful of bird-watchers and nature enthusiasts.

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