BRADENTON -- It was a perfect day Wednesday for the grand opening of Manatee County's new Neal Preserve, a 120-acre ecological gem that overlooks Sarasota Bay.
A sunny, azure sky, and a brisk, cool breeze greeted enthusiastic residents, who flocked to see the lush natural beauty of the park at 12301 Manatee Ave. W.
Just before the ceremony, a traffic jam developed at the park entrance, which police quickly dispatched.
"Wow, what a beautiful day," Manatee County Commissioner John Chappie told the crowd. "You know ... it is an honor to be here to help dedicate the latest in a series of incredible jewels in Manatee County's conservation lands system that we have here."
"With this addition of this
gorgeous park, Neal Preserve helps to boost what has become an incredible public asset around Palma Sola Bay."
The county's almost 30,000 acres of natural conservation lands has become its attractive "calling card," Chappie noted, thanking Charlie Hunsicker, county director of parks and natural resources, for his efforts.
The Neal family, which donated $6.9 million to help county officials to buy the land, wore huge smiles.
Pat Neal, a developer who said he had owned the land since 1982, remembered that the Curtiss-Wright Co., from which he bought the property, had clear-cut all its natural vegetation, including all the mangroves, in a mistaken attempt to try to circumvent new federal environmental laws.
"...I guess it's fair to say that I've spent much of my last 32 years learning about appreciating -- and I hope in our way as builders -- improving this property," Neal said.
"It is, of course, my extreme wish that our family and every family that grows up in our community grows up and prospers with the economy and weather and ecological benefits of our town, but also has some opportunity to see parts of our town that are preserved for all time," Neal added.
The ribbon was ceremoniously cut, the crowd streamed into the park.
"We'll enjoy it," said April Woodside, 39, of Bradenton, a museum curator and mother.
She had brought her two children, Zach, 5, and Kate, 3, who had made the climb to the top of the preserve's observation tower.
"It's great," she continued. "We're already planning more hikes with our moms group; we appreciate the area we live in."
Philip Webb, 84, a retired snowbird living in Bradenton and Gatlinburg, Tenn., said the park was beautifully planned and constructed.
Gesturing toward his wife, June, 81, he said, "We're looking forward to hiking here."
Sara Kennedy, Herald staff writer, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.