City has ambitious, $55 million vision for parks


Published: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 4:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 4:48 p.m.

Gainesville has a broad, $55 million long-term vision for its parks department.

It includes ideas as sweeping and ambitious as the development of a large indoor/outdoor performing arts venue in the range of 100 to 200 acres to establish the city as the "cultural center of Florida."

It also includes more modest goals such as the development of eight additional neighborhood parks of less than 10 acres and the renovation of the city's existing community centers.

Of course, envisioning a plan and having the money to see it through are two different matters. Right now, the city estimates that, at the current parks funding level of $1.5 million annually, it would have approximately $30 million for park capital projects over the plan's 20-year term. That's some $25 million short of the projected funding needs.

If the plan is fully implemented, it's also projected that annual operating costs would run some $2.75 million.

One potential funding option that this parks master plan identified is a -mill property tax increase approved for 20 years either by the City Commission or by a voter referendum.

Another option was a voter referendum on a sales tax that would be levied only within the city limits. That plan focused on a half-cent sales tax on the books for four years and modeled after the 2008 Wild Spaces & Public Places sales tax referendum for recreation projects and land conservation purchases.

Other possibilities include issuing bonds to borrowing money for park projects or putting no additional money toward the implementation and completing what the Department of Parks, Recreation & Cultural Affairs can accomplish at typical annual funding levels.

The city paid consulting firm AECOM $100,000 to put together the long-term parks plan. The firm visited and evaluated 31 of the city's park sites, received input from more than 1,500 members of the public, conducted demographic analysis of the city in terms of ethnicity, gender and age, and looked at population growth projections.

Overall, the plan found that Gainesville, with 3,080 acres of park lands, well exceeded its goal of 8.8 acres of park land for every 1,000 residents.

The main need identified in the plan was the improvement of existing facilities with filling gaps in the services and programs that the park system provides coming behind that.

"Upgrade what we have, that's the top priority," said Michelle Park, the assistant director of the Department of Parks, Recreation & Cultural Affairs.

One proposed upgrade is a $1 million project to heat the pool at Westside Park, converting it to year-round use and improving the pool's locker facilities.

The city previously used Wild Spaces & Public Places revenues to do that to the pool at Northeast Park.

The plan also calls for some $500,000 annually to go toward the renovation and upgrade of existing community centers, including projects to improve Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility.

East Gainesville resident Karen Edwards said while the city has made significant strides to develop Fred Cone Park on that side of town, other sites need improvements.

"We know there are a few parks that need significant upgrades," Edwards said.

She said that was the case with the community center and the restrooms at the T.B. McPherson park.

Proposed upgrades to athletic fields include more multi-purpose fields and providing or improving lights and restroom facilities.

The plan identifies a need for a new community center in the western area of the city and new athletic fields there.

Besides the addition of eight new neighborhood parks, several small parks are identified for upgrades.

Gainesville resident Robert Puzio lives near one of them, Springtree Park, at the Northwest 39th Avenue and 34th Street intersection. Puzio said he'd like to see neighborhood events in the park but it is now lightly used with rundown playground equipment and an old brick grill.

"I just want them to make it usable for the general public because most of the people don't even know it's there," Puzio said.

The master plan includes a $250,000 upgrade to the park, including playground equipment, ADA projects and work on the trail.

The city's bicycle/pedestrian corridors were identified as both a strength and an area of need in the plan.

Park said the goal is better connectivity linking the corridors to one another and to shopping, schools, libraries and parks.

The most ambitious component of the plan is the vision of bringing together all local groups involved in the arts and performing arts to transform the city into the "cultural center" of the state. To that end, the plan envisions a 100- to 200-acre indoor/outdoor venue for concerts, arts festivals and events. The goal is something comparable to the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts or the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts near Washington, D.C.

While it remains to be seen if that plan is brought to fruition, Judy Skinner, with Dance Alive National Ballet, said it could tap the local arts community's significant potential.

"I think one thing that makes Gainesville remarkable compared to other cities is how much arts we have and how many artists," Skinner said. "I love the idea of making people aware that this is the cultural center of Florida."

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