DUNEDIN — City Manager Jennifer Bramley called the celebration May 13 for the city’s acquisition of the Gladys Douglas-Hackworth property a “big day for all of us — the birds, the bees and the flowers and the trees.”
She went on a lot of boat tours on Jerry Lake by the east parcel until she found out that one of the inhabitants was a 9-foot alligator, she said, in jest.
“Keep an eye on my back as I do this presentation,” she said, drawing laughter.
City and county officials, local residents, donors and members of various conservation groups and others attended the ceremony on site of the 44-acre property.
Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski and other officials spoke at length about the efforts that were undertaken for the city to acquire the property and the large amount of support they received from county officials, the public and others.
Bujalski said Dunedin has always been a community that cares about land preservation, naming several parks — Hammock, Weaver, Honeymoon Island.
“This has been going on for several generations and our residents expect that out of us,” she said, thanking the late Gladys Douglas for her vision for the land.
Among the attendees she lauded was former Dunedin Mayor Bob Hackworth, the stepson of Gladys Douglas, who took up her cause to preserve the property.
“Anybody who knows Bob — he’s a force to be reckoned with when he wants something,” Bujalski said. “He picked up that ball and ran with it.”
The acquisition of the property was a slow process, but methodical, Bujalski said.
“Then, of course, it went under contract and COVID hit. All of that stuff happened within months and everything kind of came to a stop,” Bujalski said.
Persistence paid off.
Duggan Cooley, executive director of the Pinellas Community Foundation, said the foundation has been a facilitator in working to bring people together for the property acquisition.
“Four and a half million dollars was raised from the people of Pinellas County to make this possible,” Cooley said.
City officials and other partners announced Feb. 1 that enough donations came in to meet the $10 million needed to acquire the property by the deadline of Jan. 31 given to them by the estate of the Douglas property.
“No one ever gave up and that’s what it took to get it done,” Hackworth said. “I’m so appreciative on behalf of everybody. I believe in preservation as a top, public policy priority,” he said.
Pinellas County Commission Chairman and former Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers said acquiring the property clearly was the result of a public-private partnership.
“These are jewels. These are rare opportunities and I’m just so excited to be a part of this,” Eggers said.
County Commissioner Karen Seel took a boat ride with Hackworth to see the property more than two years ago.
She felt that “OK, we really have to make this happen,” but it took the community coming together.
“I never in my 25 years of being in an elected office have seen the synergy and bringing private donors, thank you, along with public monies and just making this all come together. That is just really miraculous,” Seel said.
City commissioners agreed in October to allocate $2 million to purchase the property. County officials agreed to contribute $3.5 million toward the purchase.
Cooley complimented Tampa Bay Times reporter Tracey McManus for her continued coverage of the issue.
“Every time there was a story in the paper, the phone would ring, more donations would come in, and Tracey’s continued involvement in this project really made a lot of this come together,” Cooley said.
Located in the unincorporated area, the 44 acres is the largest single open-space area in the county.
The east parcel has frontage on Jerry Lake, which has limited access, and with the surrounding wooded area, encompasses about 55 acres. The Southwest Florida Water Management District owns the lake.
The property is called critically endangered scrub habitat. The city intends to connect the land to the lake to create a nearly 100-acre park.
The next step is for city officials to begin work on the management plan, Bramley said in an interview after the ceremony. Amenities have to remain passive.
“We want to get areas open, like conservator areas, so the public can enjoy it,” she said. “They need to access it safely,” Bramley said. “Then work on the plan for the other 44 acres.”
But on May 13, it was a time to celebrate, as attendees drank champagne and ate baked goods.
“It’s a good day; we got the keys,” Bujalski said.
And probably unbeknownst to many attendees, a gator was seen partially submerged in the middle of the lake.