MANATEE -- When Dorothy Ungarelli donated her family's land off Palma Sola Boulevard to Manatee County in 2008, she knew she wanted it to be a memorial for her husband, Joseph Ungarelli Sr.
After extensive restoration of the 35 acres, that memorial, Joseph Ungarelli Sr. Preserve, is ready to be shared with the community.
"This is forever," Dorothy Ungarelli said. "This is a monument that they can always look at and say, 'It was my father and grandfather.' I figured that was a better legacy to give my children than just to give them money. The memorial will always be there."
On March 5, Ungarelli's family and friends will gather at the preserve, 4000 Palma Sola Blvd., to celebrate the park's opening. During the 90-minute opening, which begins at 11 a.m., there will be a ribbon cutting, guest speakers and nature tours. Due to limited parking, county officials are encouraging residents to walk or bike to the opening if they can.
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Since Joseph Ungarelli was a fan of Frank Sinatra music, Dorothy Ungarelli is trying to have Manatee School of the Arts singers come to the opening to sing. Ungarelli's granddaughter attends MSA.
"I want this to be a tribute to him, but also I want it to be a saying, 'Rest in Peace' and 'Be happy,' and to leave everyone with a smile on their face instead of grieving," she said.
The preserve's dedication comes a few days before what would have been Joseph Ungarelli's 81st birthday on March 9. Ungarelli, who started the business Nationwide Protective Coating Manufacturers Inc. from scratch, was loved by everyone who knew him, his wife said. He passed away in 2007.
"The day of his funeral, they had 100 cars riding in the funeral going to the cemetery," she said. "This is just a touch of what he did for Manatee County. ... We watched Manatee County grow."
While he was a workaholic, people loved him, his wife said.
"He wouldn't think twice about doing something for someone else," she said. "He was just a fine person."
In an urban environment
Tucked off Cortez Road, Ungarelli Preserve is located directly behind Ace's Lounge, 4343 Palma Sola Blvd. The preserve is a "lush mangrove oasis located on Sarasota Bay," according to the invitation to the opening.
"Being able to take a small piece of property like this and turn it into an oasis in the middle of the city is really valuable for the wildlife and environmental protection," said Melissa Nell, manager of the programming/education and volunteer division in the county's Parks and Natural Resources Department.
Ungarelli Preserve is a "great example of what can be done with small acreage," Nell said. Bicycles and dogs will not be allowed in the preserve.
"We have to remember due to both financial restraints and also the restraints of what is available, it is not always possible to have larger preserves," she said.
The restoration of the Ungarelli Preserve site was funded by grantors including the Fish and Wildlife Service, Southwest Florida Water Management District and Ringhaver.
For Nell, the site's transformation has been really amazing.
"It really has taken a lot of careful planning and love to make it ready for both human and wild users that would like to use it," she said.
The exotic plants have been removed to make way for the creation of freshwater wetlands and the installation of native plants.
"Manatee County really has an excellent history of looking at these sites, figuring out first off what can we preserve, what needs to be removed and what needs to be brought in," Nell said.
Manatee County acquired Neal, Perico and Ungarelli preserves all around the same time and has been working on all of them at once, Nell said, adding that they acquired the property for Ungarelli Preserve before the county opened Robinson Preserve.
When Ungarelli Preserve opens to the public, it will only be the first phase, which includes a pavilion and a "beautiful, little trail," Nell said.
"We really constructed the most interesting and unique trail through the uplands that we could," she said. "We had to plan very carefully."
The county has plans to expand Ungarelli Preserve, but due to the mangroves located on the property, boardwalks will be necessary, Nell said. Some access to the water may be added in the future, such as a little overlook or something like a kayak launch.
"We hope when funds become available we will be able to start work on phase two," Nell said.
At one time, Manatee County had a lot of uplands on the coast and Ungarelli Preserve is a return to that with its uplands, oaks, pines and cedar trees, which provide a place for some birds to land.
The plant palette that is at Ungarelli Preserve is "really cool," Nell said.
"I see a lot of cool plants that we don't have at other sites," she said.
Attention shifts to East Manatee
With Ungarelli Preserve joining the already open coastal preserves in Manatee County and Perico Preserve to open in May, the county's attention will now focus out east, Nell said.
"One thing we know is some attention and love is needed out east," Nell said.
Spanning more than 20,000 acres, Nell points to Duette Preserve as one that doesn't get the amount of visitors like those in West Manatee.
"There are definitely some things that we can add out there to really enhance the experience," Nell said.
Some of the county's largest preserves are in East Manatee.
"East Manatee County is just as beautiful as the coast," she said. "There are some really great opportunities to explore and connect with nature."
The county is never completely done with its preserves, either.
"We are always striving not just to protect and conserve but to really make sure people have the opportunity to connect with nature in Manatee County," she said. "They are always a work in progress. ...It is an exciting time to live in Manatee County and to visit Manatee County. Just because we are opening these sites doesn't mean we are done."
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.