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From humble beginnings, parks system thrives


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000

Fifteen years ago, the Pasco County park and recreation system was meager. Ball parks were usually little more than sandlots. Recreation centers werenonexistent. Beach parks were either empty lots or dumping grounds. Wilderness parks, such as they were, were more wilderness than park.

"It wasn't much," said Jim Slaughter, Pasco County Parks and Recreation director since 1995.

That all changed in 1986, when the voters approved a $23-million bond issue and designated $13-million of that to build parks, with the rest for libraries. Since then, Pasco County has developed a system of 34 public parks on 9,276 acres of land, with almost every type of indoor and outdoor recreational amenity imaginable. There are three wilderness parks, four Gulf front parks, four swimming pools, one lakefront park, four community centers, three recreation centers and a plethora of meticulously maintained baseball and soccer fields with concession stands, restrooms and even three press boxes.

The county parks budget stands at $6-million, which pays, among other things, 150 employees to manage and keep care of the various facilities, Slaughter said. Admission to all parks is free, but there are some fees for using certain amenities. The community centers, for example, can be used for wedding receptions or anniversary parties for free, with an $8 to $15 per hour charge for staff time only, said Martha Campbell, the administrative services manager for six years.

In addition, the southern terminus of the Withlacoochee State Trail, a linear state park, is in Trilby.

Wilderness parks

Pasco County is home to the largest county wilderness park in the state, the 8,069-acre Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park in New Port Richey. It's a wonder of quiet nature trails and camping sites within mere feet of dense suburban development. (Find it by going east off Little Road on DeCubellis Road, south on Starkey Boulevard, then east on Wilderness Road.)

The park land is owned by the Southwest Regional Water Management District and the state, but is managed by the county.

It has has five picnic shelters, each with seating for 50 people, four restroom buildings, a large playground, two volleyball courts, an athletic field, a 25-station educational nature trail (1.6 miles long), 13 miles of hiking trails, a series of short trails that connect facilities, and fire pits for bonfires. A pavilion for groups of as many as 200 and two of the shelters, as well as all restrooms, are handicapped-accessible.

The shelters, which have small barbecue grills, and the pavilion, which has a large grill, running water and electricity, can be reserved as far as 30 days in advance. The shelters are $15, and the pavilion is $25.

As for reservations, "The earlier, the better on those, so we can plan," Slaughter says.

The park also has eight rustic cabins with electrical outlets and four bunk beds, one light and a fan. A picnic table, grill and fire ring are nearby. Campers can arrange a week's stay in the cabins with a month's notice. Groups reserving all the cabins can book time as far as 90 days in advance. Cost is $15 per night for as many as four persons and $2 for each additional person. No more than eight can stay in a cabin.

There are 16 tent sites, with a restroom-shower building, picnic shelter and two fire pits. Water faucets are nearby. Cost is $5 per night for each tent site.

Backpackers can camp at three back-country campsites, with a picnic table, grill and a fire ring. These sites are free, but reservations are required.

Hitching posts, a watering trough and 9 miles of horse-riding trails also are available.

Reservations can be made at the kiosk near the entrance as far as 30 days in advance or by calling (727) 934-4198. Groups reserving all cabins can reserve three months in advance. Cabin 6 is handicapped-accessible.

Withlacoochee River Park

The 408-acre Withlacoochee River Park east of Dade City (take Sumner Lake Road east off U.S. 301 for 3.5 miles, turn south on Auton Road, then east on Withlacoochee Boulevard) is perhaps the county's most under-utilized park, say those who go there.

It has 10 primitive campsites, a large picnic pavilion for day use, four picnic shelters, three restroom buildings, two playgrounds and a 30-acre recreation field. The campsites may be used for free, but permits, available at the park office, are required.

The park also has a canoe launch on the Withlacoochee River, a 10-foot observation deck, a 3.5-mile nature trail and a 1.7 -mile hiking trail.

Crews Lake Park

One of the system's most popular parks is the 111-acre Crews Lake Park in Shady Hills (go east on State Road 52 past the Suncoast Parkway intersection, turn north on Shady Hill Road, go 2 miles, turn east on Leeway Road).

It's a favorite place for a quick, quiet getaway from West Pasco's noise. The park has 10 primitive campsites with a community fire pit in a remote area of the park. There are four restroom buildings, four shelters with grills and tables and two picnic pavilions with individual grills and fireplaces.

There's a fishing pier for freshwater fishing, an observation tower, a boat ramp, bicycle paths and a nature trail.

Camping permits are required and available on site or by calling (727) 861-3038 or 929-1260.

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