PALMETTO -- Turning a known crime area into a family-friendly environment is at the heart of the appropriately named Martin Luther King Jr. Park, located between 12th and 17th avenues west behind the Palmetto Youth Center.
The 5.3-acre parcel of city land was once covered with woods, hiding less-than-desirable activities underneath a thick canopy of invasive vegetation. That is no longer the case with plans to construct the park moving forward since early March and tree-clearing work is underway.
Bob Gause, of Allison-Gause Engineering and Community Reinvestment Agency ,project manager for the MLK Park, said the project is expected to be completed by September with final acceptance and an opening to the public in October.
The almost $1.2 million park's estimated completion date comes on the heels of some financial wrangling between the city and the Southwest Florida Water Management District. SFWMD initially pledged $500,000 in cooperative funding toward the park's construction costs, but that estimate has dropped significantly with a change in funding policy.
Gause said the agency is being more diligent in approving grant funding. While Gause, as well as city officials, applaud its closer eye on spending, it also has a direct impact on projects now underway.
"We became aware in October 2013 that Swiftmud may or may not fund the entire $500,000 they pledged to this project," Gause said. "By November, we had begun to identify an estimated
amount based on conversations about the project and it looks like it will be closer to $350,000, but we expect to be able to address the CRA board at its next meeting with an update."
Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said the city's CRA reserve fund will pay the $150,000 shortfall, if that turns out to be the case.
"But I want to be clear that we don't oppose what Swiftmud is doing," said Bryant. "It's their job to make sure that money spent is to improve water quality. They are, and always have been, an excellent partner to the city."
Gause, too, said he supports the new policies being implemented but unfortunately, projects that have already started in the midst of SWFMD changes are having to adapt quickly. To save money on the project, adjustments are being made to the park's design,
The size of irrigation lines are being reduced, one of three bridges is being eliminated from the design and a partial walking path also will be deleted from the design. An existing stormwater pipe is being re-configured instead of replaced to dump stormwater into a bioswale, which Gause said not only will save money, but is actually better for overall water quality.
The city is confident that MLK Park will still be one in which the neighborhood, community and city can be proud.
"I think it's going to be good for the residents in the area to have a good opportunity for outdoors activities in a safe environment," said Bryant, who noted the area has had a history of criminal activity.
"It was overgrown, so there was a certain element that was inhabiting there," she said. "Basically it was an area that had its fair share of crime and improving that kind of area is always a goal of the city. If you saw it before they started working over there compared to what it looks like now already, you would be shocked. I think the final product is going to be appreciated."
Bryant said a priority for all city projects is "crime prevention through environmental design. We look at lighted areas as opposed to non-lighted areas and our police department is actively involved in the design for maximum safety."
Gause said the community is excited about the new park, which he described as a "passive park," meaning it won't have traditional features like playgrounds; rather, it's more of an open space for people to enjoy outdoor activities such as picnics, walking and family gatherings.
The project will move quickly along over the next few months, and Gause is confident the CRA will get things ironed out with Swiftmud over the funding concerns. In the meantime, the CRA is pursuing other grants to add future amenities to the park and has many more plans to improve the quality of life for city residents.
"There are a lot of good things happening within the city and CRA," said Gause. "Stay tuned."