It started in August as a long-shot plea from Bob Hackworth.
The former Dunedin mayor was frustrated that city and county officials had failed to act on earlier interest in 44 acres of environmentally-sensitive woods left by his late stepmother Gladys Douglas. By then, a housing developer was closing in on one of the last green spaces in the most densely populated county in the state.
As the developer walked away in October, residents banded together through social media, sign waving rallies, fundraisers, T-shirt sales and relentless pestering of elected officials. The city of Dunedin and Pinellas County forked over a combined $5.5 million towards the $10 million asking price. Private donations flooded in.
Last week, officials announced they were $275,000 short to present a purchase agreement to the estate.
But on Monday, Hackworth stood with city and county officials and activists in City Hall to announce the community answered the call of preservation.
“Truly, this was a moonshot and we landed,” Hackworth said, his voice cracking. “This is an amazing community when you think about what we pulled off.”
The $4.5 million raised from the community includes contributions of all sizes from hundreds of donors, according to Duggan Cooley, CEO of Pinellas Community Foundation, the charity acting as a repository for the effort. It’s made up of $5 donations but also two separate $2 million donations.
Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said that shortly before Monday’s 3 p.m. press conference, a man walked into City Hall to deliver a gift of $10,000.
“Our community has rallied, our county has rallied,” Bujalski said. “Everybody has come together from all walks of life.”
City manager Jennifer Bramley said she and county administrator Barry Burton will meet on Thursday with estate attorney Nathan Hightower to present him with a purchase agreement for the property. It could take several days to have an answer on the deal, she said as she asked the community to be patient on the news.
But officials warned the work is not yet complete. Even if local government acquires the land, they are asking for further assistance in maintaining the property as a passive park as city and county government budgets are stretched for preservation funding.
“The work doesn’t end today, the work continues,” Cooley said. “The fundraising is not over but now is a day to celebrate.”
Local government’s goal is to buy the property and combine it with an adjacent 55-acre freshwater lake owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, creating a 100-acre preserve. Bramley said officials will now work on creating a five-year plan for the park.
More than a decade before she died in 2019, Douglas, a prominent philanthropist, had talked to city and county officials about buying her land to preserve as a park. Her wishes were well known, but a preservation clause was not written into her will.
Hightower, the estate attorney, began negotiations with developers after local government failed to make an offer, noting his obligation was to sell the property and distribute the funds to the beneficiaries.
Much of the community networking was done through a Facebook group launched by Dunedin resident and ecologist Nichole Mattheus. From there everyone from residents to activists from the Sierra Club, Florida Native Plant Society and other groups helped spread the word.
“I never imagined it would go this far, and we did it,” Mattheus said Monday.