Flooding has always been a major issue for the city of Pinellas Park.
The city was founded in a low-lying area that was practically uninhabitable, said Aaron Peterson, construction services director.
“It was just a wasteland, swamp-like,” he said.
In the early 1900s, before the city was even incorporated, its first residents dug channels to drain the land so they could grow crops, mostly sugar cane.
“So flooding has always been a problem,” he said.
Vice Mayor Rick Butler agreed. He’s owned and operated his business, Butler Realty, in the city for 30 years. All of his offices have been located on Park Boulevard. Currently, he’s set up shop in the 5600 block of the major thoroughfare. But decades ago, it was a bit further east down the road, not far from Taylor Family Funeral Home, which is owned by Ed Taylor, who also sits on the City Council.
Butler recalled how badly the roadway would flood. He, Taylor and other business owners would caulk their doors shut ahead of storms in an attempt to keep water out of the buildings, he said. Residents would canoe and kayak down Park Boulevard.
“It was insane. It was horrific,” he said. “Every time it rained, there would be a camera crew on Park Boulevard. All of the major outlets would be sitting there with their cameras.”
But all that has changed in the last 20 years, he said. “Now when it rains, you don’t even hear about us anymore.”
He and Taylor first ran for office in 1998 on a platform based on improving stormwater infrastructure – drainage, retention and detention ponds, mitigation areas, and the like.
“It was such a hot-button issue,” Butler said. “The city did all of these improvements and it still flooded. We knew something wasn’t right.”
Both were elected to council and extra focus was put on the flooding problem. While drainage is an issue that affects the entire city, the Community Redevelopment District, in the heart of Pinellas Park, sometimes gets additional attention because it’s a taxable district with income specifically designated for that area.
Butler estimates that as much as $100 million has been spent on flooding throughout Pinellas Park over the past few decades, funded in a variety of ways, including the city, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Water Management District.
“It’s taken a lot of hard work with a lot of different people and a lot of cooperation,” he said.
Each year, the City Council, based on staff reports and suggestions, chooses which drainage projects take priority. It also sets aside $100,000 each year for a citywide pipe replacement program and $50,000 annually for a stormwater rehabilitation program, Peterson said.
The city is about to start one of its biggest stormwater projects this year at England Brothers Park, which is located within the CRD.
Drainage has significantly improved in that area in recent years, Butler said, thanks to the city’s efforts.
But, Peterson added, there is still work to be done, particularly in the open field, which still floods. Approximately $776,000 is earmarked for the project to replace the stormwater infrastructure in the field, he said. It’s currently out to bid and work will likely begin before the summer is over.
“It’s England Brothers Park, so you have a lot of city events held there,” Peterson said. “We’re adding the stormwater infrastructure so that it doesn’t affect the events and they can be enjoyed more.”
The infrastructure at Helen Howarth Park, which is located outside the CRD, was also recently updated, as was the pond behind the Public Works/Technical Services Building.
Butler said the key is to stay on top of flooding issues and identify areas in need.
“City drainage has always been a priority,” he said. “So we spend the money we have to on drainage and we fix it.”