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Officer's vision becomes a park

Garden Avenue was neglected until leaders looked at three vacant lots and saw a park.

By DEBORAH O'NEIL, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2002


Garden Avenue was neglected until leaders looked at three vacant lots and saw a park.

CLEARWATER -- Because of one man's dream, a once-abandoned slice of a neighborhood has become a place of pride and laughter.

On Friday at North Garden Avenue Park, three teenage boys sat singing and talking under a picnic shelter. A 16-year-old girl stretched out on a bench in the sunshine reading Lord of the Rings. And 7-year-old Caylie Richardson let out a joyful "Whee!" as she whooshed down a bright yellow slide.

None of the young people enjoying the colorful new park knew much about the unique way it came to be, built on the vision of a Clearwater police officer who grew up in the neighborhood.

For the kids, it was the first time they had a place to play and hang out in this historic neighborhood tucked between Old Clearwater Bay and North Greenwood.

"I think it's really nice," said Rachel Dort, 16, who lives on Garden Avenue. "Kids from all ages will come out."

Across the street, 66-year-old Isaac Moore strolled by and smiled.

"I love it," said Moore, who has lived on Garden Avenue for 27 years. "It's what we really need for the kids."

The new park opens today with an official ceremony at 11 a.m. that will feature a display by the Clearwater Police Department of its SWAT and canine teams. The park's new mascot, "Rocky the Turtle," decorated by officers and neighborhood kids, will be unveiled.

And on hand will be the visionaries who could see potential in a littered, overgrown, vacant quarter acre.

"It's a neighborhood that has seen its ups and downs, and from our perspective, it's coming back up," said Police Chief Sid Klein. "It's projects like this that can help pull a neighborhood together."

Years ago, Sgt. Wilton Lee, 43, was a kid in the Garden Avenue neighborhood, playing football and baseball in the street because there was nowhere else to have fun.

Now a father of three, Lee supervises the community policing officers in his old neighborhood. He realized not much had changed for the children around Garden Avenue, a place he describes as "a forgotten neighborhood" that doesn't get much attention.

"They don't have the amenities some of the neighborhoods have or people who make money, or nice homes," Lee said. "It's quiet and simple."

Young people, he noticed, were still playing ball in the street.

"The kids for so long needed something," he said. "We needed to get those kids off the street."

So he took a second look at three vacant lots on the 1000 block of N Garden Avenue. He imagined cleaning them up and maybe putting up some swings.

"It was nothing on the scale you see," Lee said. "I envisioned just maybe a swing set and something for them to slide on."

Lee started asking questions and set in motion a remarkable process that drew thousands of dollars of donations, plenty of help from businesses and community organizations and some creative solutions to obstacles.

"When he came to me, I kind of looked at him funny and said, "That's a great idea. Let's do it,' " Klein said. "That is the epitome of community policing."

AmSouth Bank owned the property and offered to donate it if back taxes were paid. So the Clearwater Police Department used money seized in drug raids to pay off about $5,124 in owed taxes.

"I can't think of a better way to spend it," Klein said. "We thank our local drug dealers."

The park cost about $56,000 to build and most of the money came from donations, including one anonymous gift of $28,000. Clearwater Assistant Parks and Recreation Director Art Kader estimates the city would have spent about $90,000 had it built the park in the traditional way.

The park features two swing sets and red, blue and yellow playground equipment with slides, ramps, a corkscrew and bars to climb on. Benches and old fashioned lamps dot a walkway around the perimeter, which is landscaped with palm trees.

Kader said the city had no plans to build a park in the neighborhood.

"This was unique and unusual in that it was initiated by the Police Department," Kader said. "It's a beautiful little park in the neighborhood and it adds so much to it."

While today is the official opening, children have been enjoying the playground for weeks. Deborah Richardson walked to the park with her two daughters Friday.

"I think it's absolutely beautiful," said Mrs. Richardson, sitting on a bench watching her daughters.

As she scrambled around the playground, Caylie paused long enough to call to her mother, "I'm having fun!"

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