DUNEDIN — In his 40 years in parks and recreation, Vince Gizzi has never seen anything like the community-led action resulting in the establishment of the Gladys Douglas Nature Preserve.
That's what Gizzi, Dunedin's parks and recreation director, said to the crowd attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony Feb. 25 for the conservation area and trails at the 125-acre preserve off Virginia Avenue.
"I know you will all agree that the Gladys E. Douglas Preserve is an amazing opportunity to conserve a delicate, natural habitat in the most densely populated county in the state of Florida," Gizzi said.
In the fall of 2020, the land was fated to be lost as the property was under contract to a developer, who intended to clear the property for residential development, Gizzi said.
That got a lot of boos from the audience.
"This is a community that became aware of it and frankly weren't having it," Gizzi said to applause.
Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said she didn't know if she could get through the ceremony without crying, noting that city officials have talked about the preserve so much.
There were strategy sessions — phone calls, sometimes several a day and "herculean efforts" to preserve the area.
"It's a great day in Dunedin. We couldn't be more excited to be here with you," Bujalski said.
She thanked Bob Hackworth, whose father, Bob, and stepmother, Gladys Douglas, worked hard to keep the property in its natural state and builders away.
"Believe me, they were knocking on the door every single week and making big multimillion-dollar offers to buy the property for other development," Hackworth said.
He said County Commissioner and former Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers, Bujalski and he got together on the property one day.
Hackworth, a former Dunedin mayor, left the tour of the property hopeful because "mayors over the years have preserved property" for parks, such as Caladesi and Honeymoon islands and Weaver Park.
Buildings will come and go, but not on that acreage, he said.
"This land will be here forever. That's the wonderful thing about it," Hackworth said.
There were times during negotiations that those involved in discussions were discouraged.
"And I really wasn't sure that this was going to happen," City Manager Jennifer Bramley said. "You felt it slipping thorough our fingers and at some point you felt it was almost desperation to get this done," Bramley told the crowd.
She said she worked on the project for three months while other city officials essentially took care of the city.
A significant step was when the City Commission reallocated $2 million for a parking garage downtown and put it toward the acquisition of the Gladys Douglas property, Bramley said.
The city and the county contributed $5.5 million toward the $10 million cost; more than 1,100 private donations totaled about $4.5 million. The city and county expect to receive another $2.5 million Florida Community Trust grant for the property acquisition and development.
Duggan Cooley, CEO of the Pinellas Community Foundation, and his organization were credited for working tirelessly to raise the $4.5 million.
Numerous visitors to the preserve walked along the trail that day as well as visiting Jerry Lake.
Among the visitors was Janet DeLiso, who called the property acquisition a "big step forward, and Dunedin has got it right."
Info for visitors
Along the trails, visitors will find trail markers and interpretive signs that include a description of the area, along with some of the plant life and wildlife that may be found there.
A field fence was installed along some of the walking paths to help protect the conservation area and important native plants including the last-known remaining rosemary bald in Pinellas County.
A temporary parking lot has been established and is on the left-hand side as visitors enter off Virginia Avenue.
The residential area and access to Jerry Lake remain closed to the public while the area continues to be under development.
The preserve is open from 7 a.m. to sunset.
Alcohol, smoking, and dogs (except service animals) are prohibited in the preserve.
Golf carts, motorized vehicles, bicycles and scooters are only permitted on designated roads and parking areas. They are not allowed on the trails.
Bicycle racks are available at the parking lot and Grove Trail pedestrian entrance at Keene Road.
Future amenities include a kayak launching area, fishing pier, picnic shelter, observation platform and nature preserve.