SEMINOLE – When councilors voted to purchase two pavilions for Waterfront Park for approximately $159,000 at the Feb. 11 Seminole City Council meeting, several members of council expressed concerns over the project.
Councilors Roger Edelman and Jim Olliver vocalized their concerns about the cost and length of time the project is taking.
“It’s no secret that I, in the past, have not been a strong proponent of some of the money at Waterfront Park and I guess I wish that we would be moving a little faster in the process,” Edelman said. “I’d like to see us moving along.”
He added, “I’m not excited about the amount of money that is going into this park,” estimating that the city has spent about $1.2 million on the project so far.
Olliver said he is also “concerned with the expense,” noting that he’s often asked when Waterfront Park, which is located on Park Boulevard next to Home Depot, will be done.
“I’m getting a lot of questions that folks, they want to know, where’s the beef?” he said.
He suggested the city install signage at the site to explain when various elements of the park will be completed.
“I think if we could do that we might be able to explain better where this is going longer term, which is going to be a very nice park,” Olliver said.
City Manager Ann Toney-Deal and Recreation Director Becky Gunter began designing such a sign, and updated councilors about it at their Feb. 25 meeting. It will include a map of the park and the various elements that will be installed, including expected dates when they’ll be placed.
Toney-Deal and Gunter met with the Seminole Beacon on Feb. 21 to review the grant funding and construction timeline at Waterfront Park.
Toney-Deal inherited the project when she joined the city in August 2015, replacing longtime City Manager Frank Edmunds. Since then, she hasn’t received any questions from residents about why the park isn’t completed, she said. “I really don’t get asked why it isn’t done yet.” She’s more likely to field questions from kayakers about the slope of the launch and when that might be improved, she added.
But for those who might be wondering why construction isn’t finished yet, the answer is simple, she said: the majority of the elements installed, constructed or planned at Waterfront Park so far are tied to grant funding, which have come from state or federal agencies, and have complicated requirements and timelines that can change at the drop of a hat.
Upon her hiring, council instructed her to chase down as many grants as she could for the park, Toney-Deal said. “It’s been the council’s goal to maximize funding available to us.”
At this point she said, the city has received four grants totaling approximately $750,000 with the city responsible for matching about $483,000 of this. These grants fund more than half of the infrastructure at Waterfront Park so far, Toney-Deal said. “No grant that we’ve received has been less than 50 percent of the project.”
During the interview with the Beacon, she said she was uncertain how much of its own money the city has spent on the park, but is confident it’s more than the $1.2 million figure suggested by Edelman, given the $700,000 price tag on the land when Seminole purchased it in 2012.
Even before she came to Seminole, the city sought grants for the park. After purchasing the property, the former site of Jesse’s Landing restaurant, Seminole applied for and was awarded a $200,000 federal grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund through the National Parks Service. This funding was used for the first elements of the park: the canoe and kayak launch, a piece of playground equipment, parking and a picnic facility. This first phase was completed and the grant closed out in 2017.
In 2016, the city was awarded another LWCF grant, another $200,000 which would, this time, require a $200,000 match by the city. These funds were designated for the observation boardwalk, waterfront access trail, a picnic facility and landscaping.
Around the same time, Seminole was awarded a $100,000 Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program grant requiring a $33,000 match by the city. These funds were to be used for parking, trails, landscaping and a picnic facility.
While the city quickly got to work on the projects associated with the FRDAP grant, which was completed and closed by 2019, the second LWCF grant was delayed when the National Park Service learned Seminole never conducted an environmental assessment of the property. Luckily, NPS agreed to put the grant on hold and keep it in the city’s name until the assessment was completed.
Seminole submitted the environmental assessment on Dec. 11, 2017, and the city wasn’t notified of approval until Aug. 30, 2019. The funds weren’t actually released to the city until Jan. 23 of this year. In the meantime, no work could be done on the elements funded by this grant, Toney-Deal said. It would be a federal “violation,” she added. “You’ve got to follow the rules because it’s federal money.”
While waiting for the LWCF funds, the city worked “behind-the-scenes” on infrastructure on the site “so when the funds were released, we were ready to jump as soon as we were able to jump,” Toney-Deal said.
They stumbled upon more issues as they prepared the land, though. As they planned to update the existing kayak launch, city staff worried there might be some difficulty getting the necessary SWFWMD permits for it. They were surprised that, in reality, the hardest part came when seeking permits for the boardwalk, Toney-Deal said.
For months, they awaited SWFWMD’s review of the engineering plans for the boardwalk. Their decision could go either way: Seminole would either receive the green light from SWFWMD, which manages the water resources in west-central Florida as directed by state law, or a submerged land lease from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. This lease would need to be renewed every five years.
“There’s a lot of organizations involved when you start working on waterways,” Gunter said.
Toney-Deal added, “We’re lucky the (U.S.) Army Corps of Engineers has not exerted jurisdiction at this point.”
Ultimately, the city received their stormwater management permits for both the boardwalk and the kayak launch from SWFWMD on the same date, March 9.
With the permit in hand, the kayak launch should be installed in the next 30 days.
Work can also begin on the boardwalk. The waterfront access trail cannot be completed until the boardwalk is in place, but the city has an open purchase order with a contractor, and the pavilions purchased Jan. 16 – one of them purchased under this grant – is on order and should be installed within 10 weeks. There is a May 30, 2021, deadline to spend the money from this second LWCF grant.
The final money awarded to the city is a $250,000 FRDAP grant that requires an exact match from Seminole. These funds will be used to install an all-access playground and the playground procurement process will begin this quarter.
This year, a bathroom facility, which will be built using Seminole’s CIP funds, will also be installed at the park, Toney-Deal said. A city building official has reviewed the plans and sent them back to the architect to address a few items before a city permit will be provided. Once they’re approved and building permits are received, the project will go out to bid.
Utilities work is underway at the location of the restroom. The city’s Public Works department installed sewer and water service lines, already, and Duke Energy will run the underground electric line soon. Duke Energy has already installed a conduit and transformer pad at the restrooms site.
While it might seem like things are moving slowly at Waterfront Park, there’s a lot the public doesn’t see and a lot that’s out of the city’s hands, Gunter said.
“I think what’s sometimes tough for people to understand, who aren’t in the nitty gritty of it, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes being done – permitting, bringing in soil to raise the levels – the infrastructure stuff,” she said. “I think we all get a little impatient. Of course, infrastructure, you have to have that, but you don’t see it or know about it. … It doesn’t have that bling effect. You can’t see it. You can’t touch it. You can’t play on it, but it’s necessary.”
At the end of the day, Waterfront Park, “a destination park,” will be well worth the wait, Gunter added.
“In Pinellas County, there’s not a lot of open available green space,” she said. “To be able to capture it now, I think it’s a legacy this current council, city manager, everybody here is leaving behind.”