PALMETTO -- Eighty-eight acres of fenced and flooded land acquired by the state six decades ago for a highway construction project could soon be returned to the once-segregated Washington Park community as a business district and parkland.
Excavated to provide fill to build the business spur of U.S. 41 through Palmetto, the acreage has been blighted for years. Neighbors see it as a grassland fire hazard, while illegal dumping has forced Manatee County to clean it and fence it off.
In recent weeks, an offer of funding has come from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a proposed donation of up to 3 million cubic yards of sediment promise to make dry ground out of what is now an impassible, marshy pit. The final product could be a place where families can play, shop for groceries and walk miles of trails through one of the last wild places near downtown Palmetto.
For longtime Washington Park resident and Eternity Temple pastor the Rev.
Lawrence Livingston, the redevelopment of the old "borrow pit" would be the payoff for years of planning, praying and hoping. Since the acreage -- a former golf course -- was closed and Business 41 was built, nearby shops have closed and dozens of pedestrians have died trying to cross the highway.
Families living in the hundreds of homes around this triangular piece of land between 30th and 39th streets need a place to play, open shops and create new jobs, Livingston said. The borrow pit is the place to do it. With the help of the Army Corps, now is the time.
"We've been invoking God's relief for 15 years," said Livingston, a key member of a community group advocating for redevelopment. "There's a long history of pain in this community."
Under consideration for redevelopment since the 1970s, the 88 acres have languished on a list of proposed park projects since the Florida Department of Transportation turned it over to Manatee County. At last month's meeting of the Manatee County Port Authority, Army Corps project manager Milan Mora offered to use money left over from a recent Port Manatee dredging project to dewater millions of cubic yards of dredge spoils accumulated by the port and truck it to the park.
That huge amount of dirt would be used to contour the land into a hilly, forested park featuring wetlands, play fields and walking trails. Charlie Hunsicker, the county's parks and natural resources director, said redevelopment there is the payoff on an IOU written long ago.
"Washington Park is a community that has exhibited a lot of patience," he said. "Now is the time to bring the equity back."
Hunsicker said getting support from the Army Corps and the port is key to pushing the redevelopment plan forward. The county has just over $500,000 budgeted to spend on building perhaps a dozen acres of park and playground on the southeast corner of the property. Having the other two agencies step in with the materials and labor to fill and contour the 68 acres of cattail marsh on the rest of the property is something he previously could not have imagined happening.
Also driving the redevelopment is the promise of economic activity. Manatee County Commissioner Charles Smith, who represents the Washington Park area, said the 88 acres are in the heart of Palmetto's black community. Since a grocery store and a few other businesses once located nearby closed years ago, the area has offered little in the way of retail and services.
Some of that proposed park land should be built into a commercial park, Smith said, so the area can attract those businesses. He is proposing that a community redevelopment area be formed so public dollars can be funneled toward building it.
"You may use 20 or 25 acres or even 50 for the park," Smith said. "But then you put on a business district that helps push the park."
Livingston and his group, the Eternity Temple Washington Park CDC, have the same goal. They've targeted the eastern edge of the borrow pit acreage as a place where land should be made available for business development. Doing so will go far to right what he sees as the wrong done when the highway was built through the community.
"Most people in this community have to drive outside to find jobs," he said. "We have no stores, we have no restaurants in this portion of the community. We just don't have infrastructure to support families."
Hunsicker said there is room for park, recreation, environmental enhancement and commercial activities to coexist. He expects the pace of work to move relatively quickly if the county and the Army Corps commit to a scope of work.
The Corps and the port are on a tight schedule. Mora said the port needs to move a significant amount of its dredge spoil out of its dry land storage facility within the next three years if it is to pursue plans to deepen its shipping channel. It needs the space to store more spoil.
If the project gets the green light, the next step would be to prepare the spoil for use. Mora said it will take about two years to excavate and dry the damp, sea-bottom sediment.
The dirt will also have to be tested to make certain it contains no contaminants that would pollute the Washington Park area. If it passes that test, it would be trucked to the county's acreage there.
Hunsicker said Army Corps participation could give the borrow pit redevelopment federal project status. With that, he said environmental permitting would be more streamlined. Even so, he is committed to improving habitat on future natural park lands. He expects wetlands built into the project would rate several points higher for quality than those that have grown on the property since the borrow pit was excavated.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.