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    Penny-fed, Pinellas' garden grew

    The county kept adding land and features, never totaling the tab.

    By DEBORAH O'NEIL and EDIE GROSS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2001


    LARGO -- A small plot of flowers here. A few footpaths there. Maybe some boardwalks over the wetlands.

    A decade ago, this was the modest plan for the Florida Botanical Gardens. Twenty-three acres, $930,000. A nice little garden.

    The $36,000 stone fountain with a giant bromeliad in the middle would come later.

    As would the art museum with its sculpture garden, the cherub and teddy bear topiaries, the wedding garden with its $27,000 tubular steel gazebo and the custom-made outdoor furniture inlaid with a richly colored tile mosaic.

    A St. Petersburg Times review of the project's paper trail, as well as interviews with key people involved, reveals a homespun community garden morphing in just a decade into much more than plants: It became a $22.1-million eco-cultural complex.

    Two things made it possible: millions from the Penny for Pinellas sales tax, and the County Commission's willingness to spend it.

    The way this garden grew is a classic example of how the county government overcommitted Penny tax revenues by $123-million, a predicament that has officials scrambling and taxpayers screaming.

    Year after year, the county tapped the steady stream of Penny money, directing millions to a project that became one of its darlings.

    Commissioners admit now they kept no running total on expenses, even as the price tag swelled into the multimillions. Minutes of their meetings show they voted to add on expense after expense without any discussion of the bottom line.

    "I guess in retrospect, we should have had that calculation," Commissioner Bob Stewart said last week. "It just sort of grew a step at a time. We never had, to my knowledge, an actual sit-down where we totaled up all the commitment, all the expenditures, all the anticipated expenditures and said, "Here's the bottom line.'

    "That's not to say we didn't know this was an expensive project."

    The county did end up with a showpiece, a bucolic botanical park nestled in the middle of one of the most densely populated counties in the Southeast. It's free to visitors, and likely will be a crowd pleaser for locals and tourists.

    "We had the opportunity to take an initial concept and make it something really special," said Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd. "'It wasn't something that happened overnight. It evolved."

    Invitation to Art Center

    The botanical garden was the vision of green thumb volunteers and leaders at the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension, a horticultural learning center on 20 acres next to Heritage Village in Largo.

    Before the gardens captured the imagination of elected officials, the gardeners, dreaming of great things, started clearing by hand 23 acres the county cobbled together north of Walsingham Road.

    "It was like, "Would you like me to die and go to heaven?' " recalls Judy Yates, director of the Cooperative Extension and a guiding force of the gardens. "For us it was a wonderful, wonderful opportunity."

    Before the gardens were even on paper, the project took a dramatic -- and expensive -- turn.

    In 1994, the county trumped the cities of Clearwater and Largo, which were trying to lure the Florida Gulf Coast Art Center from its longtime home in Belleair. The county wooed the art center to the site of tangled vines and scrub designated for the gardens. The county would spend $4.4-million in the coming years prepping the site so the art center could be built there.

    Needing more space now for the gardens, the county provided a 30-acre chunk it already owned northwest of the original site.

    A grand idea emerged: A new "cultural park" could be created linking the art center with the botanical gardens and Heritage Village on 21 acres next door. The three would be connected by footbridges spanning McKay Creek and would share parking. Ultimately, the entire campus would be named Pinewood Cultural Park.

    In 1997, the gardens faced another obstacle when a bald eagle was found nesting on the 30-acre site. Federal law limits development around eagle habitats, so the gardens had to move once again.

    A 35-acre former landfill was given to the gardens, but environmental concerns pushed the cost of planting there to $12-million -- too pricey then.

    So Yates focused on a small parcel just north of the art center's proposed building. The landfill property could be developed later, but here is where the gardens would begin.

    In its first seven years, the project had multiplied nearly sixfold in land size to 129 acres. Less than $500,000 had been spent and nary a flower had been planted.

    2,300 percent increase

    In 1997, that would all change. There was more land to come. And the project's budget would be fed with a powerful new Miracle-Gro: the Penny for Pinellas sales tax.

    County officials touted the botanical gardens as the banner Penny project for the future as the 1 percent sales tax headed for a March referendum that would extend it for another 10 years.

    County leaders took overwhelming passage of the second Penny tax as a mandate to continue funding the botanical gardens.

    "This probably had more citizen support than any other project we had done except the (Pinellas) Trail," said retired county Administrator Fred Marquis, who became a leading advocate for the gardens.

    The gardens captivated the public, Marquis pointed out, unlike so many government projects that involve the dull stuff of concrete and sewers. "You had the orchid society, the bromeliad society and all of them were involved. . . . It's what the citizens said they wanted," Marquis said.

    On Oct. 23, 1997, the Cooperative Extension organized a "safari" that would assure the project's place on the county's priority list. Commissioners tromped in the woods, dressed in hiking boots and flannel shirts. Sketches and signs were stationed strategically around the property to give an idea of what the gardens could become.

    That same day Commissioner Todd wrote the very first check -- for $25 -- to become a member of the Friends of the Botanical Gardens, which now boasts 500 members.

    In 1998 officials broke ground on the Florida Botanical Gardens.

    Big spending soon followed.

    That year, the county doled out $1.5-million to purchase 55 acres east of the original site, bringing the Pinewood Cultural Park to its present 184 acres.

    It spent $640,000 more to prepare land for construction.

    In 1999, spending more than doubled -- to nearly $5-million as building began in earnest on both the gardens and the art center site.

    McKay Creek, which shot through the property like a straight arrow, was restored to a meandering stream with bends and kinks and gently sloping sides to attract wildlife. Cost: $2-million.

    Two footbridges were tossed in -- another $800,000.

    The intent was to create a world class attraction, with first-rate amenities and original works of art.

    Ordered up from Mexico was a hand-carved fountain with a lilly pad motif for $30,000.

    Specially designed wrought iron gates -- the ones opening onto the wedding garden feature love knots -- came in at $115,000.

    What justified such expense?

    Focus groups in London, in part.

    The St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau had conducted the focus groups in 1997 to discover what European visitors wanted in a Florida vacation besides beaches and Disney World. The answer: arts and gardens.

    "We made a concerted decision to build a world-class botanical garden for the economy, for tourism," Yates said. "Europeans are accustomed to fabulous gardens. We wanted them to see something here that would be world-class, and at the same time we wanted local people to be proud of it too."

    That's not to say it was a free-for-all. Some items, like a welcome center, were sacrificed.

    Still, the local gardeners who remembered the original $930,000 were dazzled.

    "It has just grown and grown and grown," said Donna Kiehl, a Largo nursery owner and one of the original volunteers at the garden. "It was like, "Wow. All this money. What can we do with it?' "

    In 2000, the county pumped $8.2-million more into the project to complete the site work and upgrade Walsingham Road.

    All the while, none of the commissioners were keeping a running total. If they had, they would have realized that by the end of 2000, the county had spent $15.8-million.

    And with $6.3-million more slated to be spent in 2001 and 2002, the project's total cost will top out at $22.1-million, a whopping 2,300 percent increase over the initial projection.

    Officials justify the expenses with a July 2000 economic impact study, conducted by the University of Florida, that showed the Pinewood Cultural Park would pump $326-million into the community from 2000 to 2002. That figure includes jobs created and the domino effect of money spent in the community by garden visitors and employees.

    Sixty-six percent of that is from the botanical gardens alone.

    The project also preserves precious green space in a dense, urban landscape, officials say.

    "We took an opportunity that suddenly presented itself to connect environmentally endangered lands. How much better to have a botanical garden than a bunch of condos?" Todd said.

    But even after all the expense, it's really just half a garden. When the earmarked Penny money runs out in 2002, half the plans will be complete. To finish the dream will cost $25-million more.

    But that won't be Penny money, officials say. Volunteers are looking for donations.

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