They met near the bank of the freshwater lake that Gladys Douglas loved so much and clinked glasses of champagne in amazement over what they’d just pulled off.
Pinellas County Commissioners, activists and others who’ve agonized over the fate of these 44 acres watched on Thursday evening as Dunedin officials signed a mock deed to celebrate the city’s official purchase of the land for a public park.
Douglas never wanted to be the last person to bask in her natural oasis in the middle of Pinellas County sprawl.
Some of her life’s greatest joy came from listening to the birds fly over the pine scrub and looking out over the lake bordering the home where she lived for 50 years.
“I think this land was her soul, because she started saying 15 years ago ‘don’t pave it over,’” said her widower, Bob Hackworth Sr.
After she died in July 2019 at 95, what she dreaded nearly came true. A developer’s bulldozer began clearing a path for soil testing last year.
But Thursday, Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski toasted to what perseverance and public partnership can do.
“This land is now owned by the people forever,” Bujalski said.
Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel called the finalization of the $10 million purchase the most miraculous synergy between public officials and community activism she had seen in her 25 years in elected office.
It began in August, when Michelle Birnbaum, an archaeologist who lives across the street, read a story in the Tampa Bay Times reporting that Pulte Homes was under a contract to buy the Douglas land for $14.5 million.
She went by herself to the property’s busy corner of Keene Road and Virginia Avenue and waved a handmade sign at passing drivers: “save the Gladys Douglas Hackworth property.”
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Neighbor Regina Marton braked as she drove by and turned around. She promised Birnbaum she’d show up the next day.
Over the next few months, dozens of residents joined Birnbaum on that street corner for weekly sign waving to raise the pressure on local government.
Through a Facebook page dedicated to the cause that now has 1,700 members, biologist Nichole Mattheus urged residents to call in religiously to city and county commission meetings to urge officials to do something.
Dunedin and Pinellas officials had investigated buying the property in the years before and months after Douglas died, but they hadn’t acted quickly enough. Without an offer from local government one year after Douglas’ death, estate attorney Nathan Hightower said he had an obligation to enter into a contract with a developer so he could sell the land and disburse the proceeds to beneficiaries.
But in late October, the end of Pulte Homes’ contract period, the estate and developer could not reach a deal. Hightower gave local government until January to make an offer.
That week, Dunedin redirected $2 million allocated for a downtown parking garage towards buying the land. In December, Pinellas County pledged $3.5 million, which then covered the $5.5 million appraisal based on the land’s existing zoning of one-unit per acre. The Pinellas Community Foundation stepped up to be the repository for private donations.
Stu Sjouwerman, founder of Clearwater cyber security company KnowBe4, and his wife Rebecca pledged $2 million. In December, Hightower rejected the city’s $8 million offer and set a firm price of $10 million.
“We were not going to let this land get away,” said Seel, the county commissioner.
But there were nights and weekends when Bujalski and Bramley, the Dunedin mayor and city manager, agonized on the phone over the negotiations.
“There was a Sunday we were going to take off work and there we were on the phone,” Bujalski said.
The contingent of residents connected through Facebook partnered with groups like Sierra Club and Florida Native Plant Society. They held a fundraiser at a brewery that raised $23,000. Filmmaker Devyn Waitt produced a documentary on the effort.
Then came another $2 million gift from an anonymous donor. By Feb. 1, city leaders stood in City Hall to announce they met the $10 million goal by raising $4.5 million from more than 1,000 donors.
When the 44-acres open in 2023, after improvements are made for public access and a master plan is finalized, it will be called the Gladys E. Douglas Preserve. City officials are working to secure management rights to the adjacent 55-acre lake, owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, to create a nearly 100-acre park.
It won’t be the first thing in Dunedin named after the late philanthropist. There’s the Gladys Douglas Cardiac Rehabilitation Center at Morton Plant Hospital, and the Gladys Douglas School for the Arts at the Dunedin Fine Arts Center.
Terry Fortner, a friend who worked as Douglas’ assistant for 40 years, estimated she gave $8 million to individuals in need and charitable causes throughout her life.
Douglas moved to the Dunedin area in 1950 after working as an administrative assistant for the Air Force and Navy in Washington D.C. She immersed herself in her new community, staying active with the First Presbyterian Church of Dunedin and serving as organizing president for the Junior Women’s Club of Clearwater.
She later met Stanley Douglas while working as a sales agent for his Douglas Arms Construction Company and married into one of Pinellas’ founding families. The year after Stanley Douglas died in 1988, she married Bob Hackworth Sr., who she had known through their shared love of tennis.
Fortner remembers a period in the late 1990s, when the Douglas family business was selling a large tract of land that had once been citrus groves. When Fortner signed her name on some petitions protesting the sale, she noticed Gladys Douglas’ discomfort.
“It wasn’t long after that where she told me ‘I’m doing something that’s going to make you very happy,’” Fortner said.
Around 2005, Douglas began her campaign to convince local officials to buy her property so the proceeds could be distributed to her favorite charities. Shortly before she died, her stepson, Bob Hackworth Jr., took up her cause, bringing local officials out for boat rides in the lake and tours of the property.
On Thursday, Fortner baked Douglas’ favorite pound cake recipe, toffee bars and egg salad sandwiches to go with the celebratory champagne.
“She would be smiling, she would be raising a glass of champagne this evening,” Fortner said. “I believe her spirit can now feel peace because of what happened through all of the efforts of these many, many people.”
At the corner of Keene Road and Virginia Avenue on Thursday evening, the veteran sign wavers returned for one last event.
They hoisted signs that said “Thank You” as drivers honked their horns and waved at the familiar crew.
The city erected a banner that reads: “Gladys Douglas Preserve, property of the city of Dunedin, thank you to all our donors!”
Going into Thursday’s closing, Nichole Mattheus said she felt a sense of relief. But she’s already planning ahead.
The dozens of activists and environmental groups that banded together to save the Douglas land recognize they can’t raise $4.5 million for every preservation effort to come.
After the Douglas purchase, Pinellas County has about $12 million for preservation purchases through 2030.
The coalition that formed through the Douglas fight had its first meeting on April 24 to start developing a conservation plan for the county.
“In the end, the take-home message is going to be how do we do this again, how do we keep this going and have sustainable conservation movement?” Mattheus said.