PALMETTO -- When Florida Power & Light representatives approached Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant about investing in a solar plant opportunity somewhere in the city, Bryant said, "Let's take a ride."
The group drove into the northern entrance of Estuary Park and a partnership was born.
It's a partnership Community Redevelopment Agency Jeff Burton calls unique considering it is between an electric company and a city park consisting of sensitive wetlands.
"The cool part about this is that it's labeled as a power plant and it's going to be in the middle of an estuary as a very ecological friendly, green power plant," he said.
Most people may not even realize there will be a solar power plant because of the design.
FP&L will build an overhead parking structure in the existing shell rock parking lot that will look like a parking structure that provides shade for motorists visiting the park. But the columns of the structure are actually the heart of a solar energy plant that will feed the park with additional lighting for both security and a new kayak storage facility, similar to what kayakers use at Robinson Preserve.
Burton said for those who do not want to, or cannot carry their kayaks with them, the city will offer storage space. While there are kayaking opportunities at Estuary Park, it's going to get much better thanks to the partnership that has accelerated the city's long-term plan for the park.
The CRA will pursue grants to install a kayak launching point at the western end of the parking lot, where Carr Drain empties into a stormwater system that leads to the Manatee River. Carr Drain is a historic man-made waterway that was likely once a creek, but has become a natural stormwater drainage system for the city.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is on board because the plan will clean up the drainage point and remove invasive species, not only in the launching point area, but through the waterway all the way to the river. Burton said the plan will likely allow the city to trim mangroves through the waterway and create a tunnel canopy system through the mangroves that kayakers will enjoy en route to the river.
"Everything we do isn't without a reason," said Burton. "We like everything to have a certain feel and look to it to create the outcomes we want. We don't do something because we can, we do something because we have a reason."
Estuary Park, like all of the city's parks, will eventually be connected by a multi-modal trail beginning at the Green Bridge and Riverside Park West early next year. Eventually, combined with Manatee County's plan to build a trail from Palmetto to Parrish, Burton said people will be able to use the trail from Emerson Point all the way to Parrish.
Estuary Park is what Bryant calls a "gem that no one has ever polished."
City officials acknowledge the imperfections of the park despite its beauty. The park land was acquired in the 1990s as part of a land swap involving the construction of Riviera Dunes.
The contract with FP&L, which will award the city about $2,500 a year in additional revenue, is currently under debate by the city commission. Bryant said it's an incredible opportunity for the city to get people out to an "under used park," but also to promote environmental education.
"It's most ideal," she said. "It brings all the components together of what an environmentally conscious city should be working on."
Ray Dowling, FP&L area manager, said if all goes well, a plan could be in place within the first quarter of 2016. FP&L will pay for the structure, which will provide free electricity for the park.
Burton said the kayak storage facility will be included in the initial construction. In the meantime, the CRA will pursue grants for the kayak launch, which currently has no timetable.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter@urbanmark2014.