For work or play?
By ANNE LINDBERG
LEALMAN -- After years of wishing, residents are on the verge of getting a new fire station. But now, some neighbors are questioning the proposed location and others wonder whether the money would be spent better elsewhere.
Among the objections: that the station effectively will eliminate Lealman Park by taking up so much space there would be no room left for children to play. Others concerned about annexation fear a city could take over the fire station that Lealman taxpayers paid for.
Despite the reservations, "we're just going to go forward the way it is," said Linda Campbell, head of the fire commission.
Campbell said she would start worrying about the station's future only if the Pinellas County Commission said it was in jeopardy.
"Then I'll take it seriously," Campbell said.
Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham also was inclined to ignore the talk.
"The process is already gone through, passed. We're to the building phase at this point. This community needs a new fire station," Graham said.
"There hasn't been very much of an outcry in opposition. There's like three people."
Graham conceded, however, that many people want to save as much of the park as possible.
Lealman has long wanted a new fire station and, finally this year, got $2-million in Penny for Pinellas money to build one. Design and construction are scheduled to begin after the first of the year.
The firehouse is planned for the northeast corner of Lealman Park, 54th Avenue and 37th Street N, the only such space in the unincorporated area. At one time, the station was going to be two stories, but now it's more likely to be one story and take a bigger area of the park.
Some neighbors see themselves losing a lush area shaded by oak trees where children can play.
"I'm opposed to turning the park into a fire station," said the Rev. Dee Graham. She is no relation to fire Chief Graham.
The Rev. Graham is helping spearhead a move to get the fire station built elsewhere.
"Our green space and the last of our natural land in Pinellas County is our most precious resource," the Rev. Graham said.
"There are plenty of places covered with concrete that could work for a fire station, but there's only one place in Lealman that's a park. It was given to our children. It needs to stay a little piece of wilderness for our children."
Fire Chief Graham said he understands the fears, but placing a fire station in the park could actually help the area's children because of the supervision firefighters could provide. In fact, he said, the firefighters' presence could increase the use of the park, which is normally vacant.
Others see the foreboding presence of annexing cities. St. Petersburg wants an area around the Joe's Creek Industrial Park, and the western border of the tract is 37th Street, just across from the park.
Why spend $2-million on a fire station, they ask, when St. Petersburg or Pinellas Park will just take it over? It might be better, they say, if the money were spent to build a family or community center at the park. The community then has something even if the property is annexed.
"It'd be the perfect marriage," said Ray Neri, president of the Lealman Community Association.
At a recent meeting of the Lealman Revitalization team, residents assembled by the county to help improve the area, Neri suggested building a community center rather than a fire station. The response was instantaneous as people cried out "Amen!" and "Hooray!"
It's an idea that county officials have tossed around in the past, said Frank Bowman, a specialist with the county's Community Development Department. It's unclear, he said, if the money could be rerouted from a fire station to a family center.
It's a proposal the Fire Commission would oppose.
Even if the area was annexed, Chief Graham said, a new fire station is needed and someone will have to build it. No matter who runs the station, he said, it will serve the people of Lealman.
"These citizens deserve it," Chief Graham said.
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