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Fort DeSoto Park facing costly repairs as it turns 50

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Published:   |   Updated: May 10, 2013 at 01:54 PM
TIERRA VERDE -

For park manager Jim Wilson, Fort DeSoto Park's 50th anniversary is less important than its centennial, a milestone he doesn't see the park reaching by maintaining the status quo.

“We need a plan,” he said.

The park's award-winning beaches and attendance aren't the problem. It's something few visitors see: the aging infrastructure inside the park, which marks its 50th anniversary on Saturday.

Such repairs and upgrades are paid for with Penny for Pinellas sales tax money, to the tune of about a million dollars a year, but there's not enough to address all the expensive fixes needed at the park. Finding “extra” money for such longer-range needs is a tough proposition, especially when the park is struggling to pay for day-to-day operations on its shoestring budget.

The park's sewer and water lines were laid nearly 50 years ago and are corroding, said Pinellas County Parks and Recreation Operations Manager Lyle Fowler. It's would be nearly impossible to put a total cost on such a project or to pay for all the park's infrastructure needs in the short term, he said.

“It'll happen incrementally,” Fowler said. “We'll do a little bit as we go.”

The county only has $7.1 million budgeted for capital improvement projects at Fort DeSoto through 2020, Fowler said. That doesn't account for unexpected repairs, such as restoration work that could be needed after a storm.

The next planned improvement project is slated for this summer. Crews will replace the water and sewer lines underneath the 2,000-space North Beach parking lot. Total estimated cost: $700,000.

“Under some of this pavement are water and sewer lines that need to be rerouted to get them out from under the pavement so that the next generation doesn't have to worry about, when they do another paving job, whether the lines are in a good condition,” Wilson said.

At a price tag of $100,000, another project will repave a portion of the recreational trail many cyclists, runners and roller-bladers use.

That work is just part of what needs fixing, and the county will need help to handle other projects.

Replacing the park's aging but popular Bay Pier is estimated to cost $1.5 million. The county would need a matching grant to pay for that project, Fowler said.

Pinellas County has been putting money into park upgrades. Between 2005 and 2012, the county spent nearly $5 million on maintenance and upgrades, perhaps most visibly the replacement of playground structures and repairs to picnic shelter roofs.

That piecemeal approach likely will continue, county officials say.

“The only way we can do it is if we have the money, and we don't have the money,” said County Commissioner Susan Latvala.

The parks department is even struggling to cover day-to-day needs at Fort DeSoto.

Revenue from a $5 daily parking fee the county started charging last year has helped cover costs. The county collected nearly $1.7 million between January 2012 and this April.

County officials drew fire from frequent park visitors after proposing the fee. Without bringing in additional revenue, though, they argued the county could not cover the park's basic expenses, such as lifeguards, fuel for staff vehicles, paper towels. It was the first time a park usage fee had been proposed for Fort DeSoto.

The park already was charging people to use the boat launch ramp and the park's campground. Other revenue comes from concessions vendors' rent and from a cellular carrier that leased a small part of park land for a cell tower. The new fee now combines with them to cover about $3.5 million of the park's $4.1 million operating budget.

“I think the parking fee was a beautiful idea,” Latvala said.

The fee does not appear to have impacted attendance, which tends to fluctuate between two and three million people annually. Attendance numbers actually went up by 500,000 the year after the fee was imposed.

Through the middle of April, Fort DeSoto Park already had attracted more than 1.1 million visitors, who come to fish, watch rare shorebirds, collect sand dollars or sunbathe on the park's award-winning beaches.

To many, Fort DeSoto is one of the few remaining places on the Pinellas County coast to experience a sense of remoteness and glimpse uninterrupted miles of undeveloped shorelines.

Such was the intent 50 years ago when county leaders, aware of the development poised to swallow up the county's barrier islands, elected to set aside the land, which had been the site of a military fortification since the Civil War.

The park's dedication took place on May 11, 1963, and it has been a marquee attraction for the county ever since.

“It's absolutely a crown jewel of Pinellas County parks,” Latvala said. “There's no question of the value for tourists and citizens.”

Nonetheless, budget problems fueled by the recession led county leaders to cut the park's budget by 17 percent between 2005 and 2013.

The cuts resulted in a 41-percent reduction in staff, according to the Pinellas parks department. The void is being filled largely by more than 300 volunteers who spend thousands of hours each year working at the park, performing tasks paid employees did in better times.

“I know there's been budget constraints and things like that, and the park lost employees,” said Karl Cummings, a retiree who has been spending his Tuesdays helping out for the past year.

“I think volunteers are critical in keeping this place rolling,” he said, loading the back of a golf cart with new hand soap dispensers destined for the park's bathrooms.

“[We're] not to par where we were in 2005, but we're slowly coming back.”

Other volunteers build picnic tables, repair masonry and plumbing, plant sea oats to protect
beach dunes or steer beachgoers away from nesting shorebirds.

“The jobs are gone,” Wilson said. “The work is still here.”

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