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Bowen: Snipping the ribbon on the heart of Land O'Lakes

There are a lot of numbers surrounding the reopened county park at the Land O'Lakes Community Center.

The $2.3 million it cost for the expansion.

The 16.5 acres at the site.

The 300 feet from home plate to the outfield fences on the softball diamond.

The two football goal posts.

The $250,000 in state funding for a planned stage/bandshell.

But the number mentioned most often at last week's ribbon-cutting ceremony was 91. As in 1991 — the year the county first said it wanted to revamp the park for the Pasco Police Athletic League's Land O'Lakes football team.

Consider it this way. Some of the players in the league's junior flyweight division (ages 5 to 7) that year are now 30 years old.

"None of you were here when we started,'' Sandy Graves of the Heritage Park Foundation told current county commissioners. "Thank you for finishing this.''

Indeed.

The ribbon cutting was a testimonial to people like Graves, who successfully lobbied for the state money, and to Rick Buckman, the former county parks director who labored long and hard over the project and who reminded the audience of the promises made in 1991. Both must be admired for their persistence, and the community must be commended for its patience.

The Heritage Park Foundation, incidentally, initially envisioned a museum on the property to showcase the area's history, but later put its focus on a bandshell and stage for community performances.

The people who influenced this park (either its original incarnation or the expansion) and, as a by-product, influenced this community are abundant. I counted 85 people at the ribbon cutting, and most of them had a hand in the park one way or another via volunteering, fundraising, lobbying and even shuttle diplomacy to help broker a deal between the Pasco School District and Pasco County to keep the land in the public domain.

And that is another number key to the park: two. The school district and county are partners in this venture, sharing space under the first co-location agreement between the entities. Next door to the community park is the rebuilt Sanders Memorial Elementary STEAM Magnet School, which throws open its doors to students on Monday. It means athletic fields can be used by school kids during the day and by community athletes after school hours and on weekends.

It's a simple idea, really. The U.S. Department of Education has advocated for the use of schools as centers of communities to help meet the public's leisure, recreation and wellness needs. In Pasco, some pols talked of using schools to supplement the county's parks, but it never went beyond talk. Eventually, Kathryn Starkey who served on the School Board before being elected to the County Commission three years ago, pushed that theme, only with more vigor. The school district's deputy superintendent, Ray Gadd, did likewise.

The results are this project; a second joint agreement for a park, school, library and theater at the Starkey Ranch development, and plans for a similar, but not yet finalized, plan for a park and middle school at Connerton.

Starkey Ranch will be a brand new facility. In Land O'Lakes, however, there is a strong sense of nostalgia for the community center park. Volunteers constructed the actual building in 1961 and turned it over to the county. The building and surrounding park became home to dances, the Miss Land O'Lakes pageant, the Land O'Lakes Little League, the Central Pasco United Soccer Association, PPAL football, the Flapjack Festival, the Swampfest, a hot air balloon festival, antique car shows, outdoor movie nights, haunted houses at Halloween, Jellybean Jamborees at Easter and Traditions on the Green at Christmas. Jeb Bush campaigned for governor there, and many a local candidate knew the Flapjack Festival was the place to be the weekend before Election Day. Kids go for summer camps, and adults go for the AARP meetings.

In other words, grown-ups hitting softballs and kids passing footballs are just a small part of what makes this place a community staple.

"Land O'Lakes has grown in all directions,'' said Joanne Hurley, a Pasco School Board member who previously was active with the Heritage Park Foundation, "but this place truly remains the heart of Land O'Lakes.''

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