Tampa’s $742 million question: How do we pay for parks?

A new study recommends a 20-year plan to bolster existing parks, and add new ones.
Robles Park on N Avon Avenue is one of 191 parks operated by the city of Tampa. A park master plan calls for upgrades to existing parks plus developing eight new parks and 35 miles of trails over the next 20 years.
Robles Park on N Avon Avenue is one of 191 parks operated by the city of Tampa. A park master plan calls for upgrades to existing parks plus developing eight new parks and 35 miles of trails over the next 20 years. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published May 19, 2023

The city of Tampa has 191 parks and it is investing $46.3 million this year to upgrade them.

It’s not enough, according to a new master plan for parks and recreation compiled over the past two years by consultant AECOM.

The city’s park system, despite its popularity and high-profile successes, is showing its age, the study said, and the city should consider a 20-year strategy to complete 2,200 upgrades at existing parks; finish 15 additional parks that remain undeveloped even though the city owns the land; acquire property and build eight new parks and add 35 miles of trails and sidewalks.

The estimated cost is $742.5 million (in 2022 dollars). The city’s capital improvement plan and grant funding can account for only about one-third of the expense. The study identified a possible $500 million bond issue to pay for the remainder.

The plan, presented to Tampa City Council members Thursday afternoon, included survey results that showed nearly one-fourth of the respondents said their household would pay $10 a month additionally for city parks. Another 35% said they would pay at least an additional $4 a month and less than 19 percent said they wouldn’t be willing to pay any additional cost.

Council member Lynn Hurtak said she was encouraged by the public’s attitude “to put their money where ... their heart is.”

But Council member Luis Viera wasn’t as quick to endorse new charges on city taxpayers.

“I do not support new taxes for parks,” said Viera, who pointed to more pressing needs facing the city, including transportation and public safety.

Viera also noted his New Tampa-based District 7 only has 11 city parks. Even counting parks available to residents through neighborhood community development districts, Viera said his district’s 26 total parks is 50% fewer than the number of city parks in other council districts.

The city’s roster of parks ranges from the Babe Zaharias Golf Course to neighborhood pocket parks like Park Circle Park in Old Seminole Heights Northeast and the popular downtown mainstays such as the Tampa Riverwalk, Curtis Hixon Waterfront and Julian B. Lane Riverfront parks.

But the park study, which included input from 35,000 individuals through town hall meetings, focus groups, interviews and a public opinion survey, identified a near-universally endorsed need to add bike trails, pedestrian paths and sidewalks to improve smaller, neighborhood and community parks to make them safer and more accessible.

“The parks you have, it’s just basically a need for improvement,” said Joe Webb, AECOM’s director of park planning. “It’s really just reinvestment. It’s not that they’re not maintained. Things are just reaching their life cycle. That’s pretty predictable.”

Webb urged council members to focus on the what the public identified as the most pressing needs, rather than the expense. Besides the trials, the study noted other short-term needs including nature preserves and conservation areas, more aquatic facilities and accessibility to water recreation. The goal, he said, is for residents to be within a 10-minute walk from their homes to “meaningful open space.”

The need for more park land isn’t a new idea. Carroll Ann Bennett, treasurer of the Virginia Park Neighborhood Association and vice president of the Tampa Homeowners, an Association of Neighborhoods, recently emailed council members detailing a missed opportunity. She detailed the sale of 2.2 acres on S Himes Avenue, just north of MacDill Air Force Base, for $1.5 million.

“That is a bottom basement price! This is exactly the kind of park land the city should be purchasing,” she wrote. ”The city needs to look into grants to buy properties like this. Let’s start pursuing grant money now, so that these golden opportunities don’t keep slipping away.”

Council members said they would consider how to pay for future park land in July.