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Exercise trail to wrap around once-pitiful pond in east Tampa

TAMPA — In the 1940s, a congregation from east Tampa would gather at a pond near Osborne Avenue and 30th Street to perform full-immersion baptisms.

That was before people started using the pond as a dump, before local officials surrounded it with a fence topped by barbed wire, before residents fought to reclaim the neighborhood from blight and drugs.

Last week, the story of the pond turned back toward redemption.

City Hall plans to spend about $500,000 surrounding the 3.8-acre pond with an exercise trail and boardwalk. The half-mile trail will have four stops along with the way offering eight pieces of fitness or play equipment. The city will plant more than 110 trees, including palms and cypress. The trail will connect to sidewalks along Osborne Avenue, N 29th Street, N 30th Street and E Cayuga Street.

At a project kickoff last week, Mayor Bob Buckhorn told residents he had been thinking about the pond for years.

"When I sat on City Council a long time ago, I was out here a lot," said Buckhorn, a council member from 1995 to 2003. "What I saw was that the retention ponds in east Tampa did not look like the retention ponds in South Tampa. This was covered barbed wire. It was overgrown. It was unattractive."

So when Buckhorn became mayor, he told parks officials to plan a project to transform the pond back to a public space neighbors could enjoy, he said.

"I thought we could turn this pond into something other than an eyesore, that we could turn it into an amenity for the community," he said.

The City Council last week voted to pay Certus Builders of Tampa $207,399 to create a trail 8 feet wide and about 0.4 miles long. The city plans to seek bids soon to build the remaining pieces — three sections of boardwalk along parts of the pond's banks that are too steep for an asphalt trail — through a separate contract.

Work starts in December and is expected to be done in April.

East Tampa residents say the pond will be the latest in a series of improvements for the area. Twenty years ago, a street corner within sight of the pond was a busy and menacing open-air drug market.

"It was like a grocery store," said Cynthia Few, president of the College Hill Neighborhood Association and Crime Watch.

Police and neighbors cleaned that up, and residents successfully lobbied to at least take down the fence, which had gaps ripped into it by vandals. Some worried that without the fence, kids might end up in the pond and drown. But that hasn't happened, said Dianne Hart, chief executive of the East Tampa Business & Civic Association, and before the fences came down, she said she told skeptics why it wouldn't.

"They already have holes in the fences," she said.