In Washington Park, Memphis: a promise to keep a long-awaited promise for a park

“The state just walked away,” Hunsicker said. “I promise I will not walk away.”

CARL MARIO NUDI PHOTOS
Jr. Bishop Lawrence Livingston, of the Eternity Temple First Born Church of the Living God., Inc., 1016 25th St. E., stands in front of the 88 acres where Manatee County plans to create a community park.

By CARL MARIO NUDI

The historically black communities of Washington Park and Memphis, north of Palmetto, have been waiting decades for government agencies to live up to their promise of a community park.

At an Oct. 30 meeting held at the Lincoln Middle School Media Center, about 55 community members heard a couple of government officials renew that promise, but with more confidence than ever before that it will become a reality.

“I’m on a mission under the direction of the board of county commissioners to honor what we have promised in 2004 — to work for the funding necessary to bring this vision to reality,” said Charlie Hunsicker, director of the Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources.

Charles Smith, county commissioner for District 2, which includes Washington Park and Memphis, confirmed that the commission was committed to the project.

“The community had a vision to move this project to where it is today,” Smith said, “and the commission has made funding available.

“It’s important to have unity on this issue to assure continued funding,” he said. “We’re going to get this project done.”

Hunsicker presented the meeting attendees the plan Santec, a Sarasota landscape architecture firm, was hired to prepare.

The park will be located at the site of the borrow pit the Florida Department of Transportation created in 1957 when dirt was needed to build the U.S. 41 overpass near 29th Street East, north of Palmetto.

The state purchased the approximately 88-acre golf course between 30th and 39th streets east and the CSX railroad tracks and Eighth Avenue East, that was there since the 1940s.

After the U.S. 41 bypass construction was completed, the state abandoned the site, leaving three deep holes covering about 44 acres of the property.

“The state just walked away,” Hunsicker said. “I promise I will not walk away.”

He said he has a special connection to the site because in 1979, he waded into one of the water-filled pits and as he was in about thigh-high “a very large snake” started swimming toward him.

Charlie Hunsicker, director of the Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources, explains to the more than 55 people from the Washington Park and Memphis communities the plans for a community park in their neighborhood.

Hunsicker said he did not have enough time to turn back to climb the pond bank, so he just stood still, and some divine power had the snake swim right past him.

The longtime county employee explained that just as there was a high bank for him to climb to get out of the way of the snake, there is a high wall to climb to have the park project completed.

“But we will climb it,” Hunsicker said to several shouts of “amen” from the audience.

The site not only contains the borrow pits, but also historical wetland and upland areas.

The proposed plan calls for recreational amenities, such as a central pavilion, a children’s play area, and a multiuse field, on the 12 upland acres in the lower east corner of the site.

“We can build the park amenities in the uplands right now,” Hunsicker said.

But he said the community deserves a complete park with nature trails and other features.

And this was where the partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers, Port Manatee, the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the county commission come into play, Hunsicker said.

He said the Corps of Engineers were looking for somewhere to place about 1 million cubic yards of dredge material they have stored at Port Manatee.

The port will be needing the space in the future for new dredge material, so moving the old material from the port to the fill in the borrow pits seemed like a good solution to the Corps.

It will cost between $6 million and $9 million to truck the fill dirt the approximate 7 and one-half miles from the port to the pits, and Hunsicker said the Corps will pick up the whole cost.

With about 62,000 truckloads needed, this could take up to nine years to complete this phase, he said.

Hunsicker said the plan is to not only fill the pits, but with the amount of fill dirt available to create a contour landscape, with walking paths between them.

Scott Buttari, a principal with the Santec firm, gave those at the meeting an idea of what that graded landscaped area would look like, projecting several computer-generated 3-D images on a screen.

The only roadblock could be the Florida wetland regulations.

Even though there were only 27 acres of wetlands on the property when it was a golf course, because rainwater filled the three pits and vegetation, mostly cattails, has grown in them the state now considers that area wetlands.

“But we are going to have the help of the Army Corps of Engineers to convince the state that it is more useful to fill (the borrow pits) with dredge material from the port,” Hunsicker said.

“If you take wetlands and make them better that’s called mitigation,” he said. “That’s what’s going to be our argument.”

Hunsicker said the park is needed for a recreational area of the community youth.

“This is important, because I know this community has pride,” he said.

He pointed out the success of two community projects of the Eternity Temple First Born Church of the Living God, Inc., 1016 25th St. E., which completed, a basketball court and a community garden.

“We have — using a word from the Bible — a foretaste of what the new park can be,” said Jr. Bishop Lawrence Livingston, of Eternity Temple.

“On weekends people flock to the court and gardens,” said Livingston, who has been a community leader in getting this park project completed.

He said the park “is for the children to see there finally is hope” for this community

“We have a generation of young people who are questioning the future of our community when we tell them of the possibilities,” Livingston said. “They see other communities advance, but we have nothing.”

Another community leader, the Rev. McArthur Sellars, of the Bible Baptist Church of Palmetto, agreed with Livingston.

“This will be one of the most important things to help our community,” Sellars said. “It will allow the kids to know we are doing something, and they will stay in the community.”

Hunsicker said he wanted to start this year with the design and permitting for the upland section of the acreage, with completion in 2019-20.

But he said the community needed to show up at the commission meetings when the project comes before the board probably sometime in January 2018.

“This makes a powerful impression on the commissioners,” Hunsicker said.

For more information contact Livingston at the Eternity Temple church at 941-722-1590 or visit its website, www.eternitytemplefbc.com.

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