TAMPA — Construction crews worked until 10 p.m. Monday, but 12 hours later Water Works Park made its debut on a Tuesday morning steamy enough to make the adults in the crowd wish that they, too, could cool off at the new splash pad.
"This is a day I have wanted for a very long time," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "Not just one year or two years, but 20 years."
The city spent $7.4 million to transform Water Works Park — long closed to the public and partly used as a police fuel depot — into 5 acres with something for everyone.
There's a dog park, an extension of the Riverwalk, picnic areas and a playground with a rope climb like a ship's rigging. The centerpiece of the splash pad is a huge yellow water bucket that tips over about every two minutes to soak everyone below.
"It's larger than I thought it was," said the Rev. Bruce Moore, who walked to the park from his home in Tampa Heights with his three children, ages 5, 3 and 2. "They've put a lot in 5 acres."
The park also has a festival lawn for art shows and food festivals, plus a performance pavilion set so that the audience sees downtown Tampa's skyline beyond the stage. Already, activities are scheduled on 14 weekends from mid September to early December, officials said. They include outdoor movies at sunset, a 5K run, the River Rock Craft Beer & Music Festival on Nov. 15 and the Tampa Heights Music and Jazz Festival on Nov. 22.
"When this park is discovered and people realize what's down here and how family-friendly it is, I think this place will rival Curtis Hixon (Waterfront Park) in popularity," Buckhorn said.
As part of the project, Ulele Spring was restored to its natural freshwater flow of 2,000 gallons a minute. There's an opening to the Hillsborough River and a big pond where manatees can swim in and relax. In June, a mama and her calf did just that.
The park also is designed to spark the area around it, attracting both activity and investment so it's less a lonely outpost and more a busy hub in a growing neighborhood. That starts with the park's location, overlooking a sweeping bend in the Hillsborough River.
"The potential is huge," Buckhorn said, but people have to "see beyond what existed two, three years ago and recognize what could exist …"
Consider what's coming next.
On Aug. 26, Columbia Restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart opens Ulele Native-Inspired Food and Spirits in the city's old 1906 Water Works Building next to the park, with a menu reflecting local history.
The renovations have cost Gonzmart $5 million, but he said he, too, thinks the area is poised to take off. "I want to be part of that dream," he said.
Buckhorn expects more.
A couple of blocks north of Ulele is what city officials hope will be Tampa's next big urban reclamation project. It is starting with a renovation of the historic trolley barn — a big red brick warehouse that says "Tampa Armature Works" across the top — and is expected to continue with the development of 49 acres once known as the Heights.
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Developers Adam Harden and Chas Bruck have engaged the architect for the Oxford Exchange to redesign the trolley barn as an event space with restaurants and offices, and scaffolding surrounds the structure. Also in place: approved zoning for 1,900 multifamily apartments or condos, 100 boat slips and 260,000 square feet of offices, stores and cafes.
"It'll be nice for this area to build up," Riverside Heights resident Charles Fox said as his 6-year-old daughter, Mirabel, played in the water. They have been going to the city park at Ballast Point, but Water Works is close enough to walk.
Over the past few weeks, 50 to 70 construction workers toiled seven days a week to finish the job. One of main challenges was removing all the tainted dirt on the site and replacing it with clean fill. Along with the city's police fuel depot, part of the site once was home to a shipping company and was contaminated with petroleum coke.
About $6.5 million of the construction funding came from Hillsborough County's voter-approved community investment tax, which pays for schools, roads and other projects. The Southwest Florida Water Management District provided additional money.
City officials say there's more to come, features to connect Water Works Park not just to the surrounding neighborhood but to the river. Once permits are approved, the city will install a kayak launch, eight boat slips and a water taxi stop.
"We created an anchor on that end of the river that will stimulate private development," Buckhorn said. "The investment that we've made in this park will trigger tens of millions of dollars of private investment that will take place, that will add to the tax base, that will create jobs, that will create a destination.
"But it took the ability and vision to see what it could be," he said, "and not just be content with what it was, which was nothing."