The Safety Harbor Waterfront Park.
The road to developing Safety Harbor’s Waterfront Park has been a long and winding one.
Thanks to a permitting delay that could put some aspects of the park in jeopardy, it’s about to get even longer.
When Vice-Mayor Andy Zodrow asked about the status of the park during Monday night’s City Commission meeting, City Manager Matt Spoor said they are finally ready to move forward with phase one of the project.
But he said the wait to secure a crucial U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit will push work on the wetlands portion of the property back up to a year, potentially resulting in the loss of state funding for another portion of the project.
“The last time we spoke about this we talked about how we needed three permits,” Spoor told the commission. “We’ve received one. We’ve been told that we’re going to receive the second one shortly. So that’s the good news.”
City Manager Matt Spoor (File photo.)
“The bad news is the third one is 8-12 months out. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to do Phase One in two phases. We’re going to do all the upland portion, which we have the permits for, and we’re going to do that sooner than later.”
If the news of the potentially lengthy delay wasn’t bad enough, the city manager then dropped another bombshell.
“The only fear we have is the grant monies we have from the state on the boardwalk,” Spoor said.
“All indications are they will work with us, but you never know. There’s a chance if this drags on too long, then we won’t have money for the boardwalk. If that’s the case, that work would be limited to cleaning up the wetlands and the parking lot.”
An overhead map view of the Safety Harbor Waterfront Park.
The news was initially met with stunned silence from the commission; the Waterfront Park project has been high on the list of things to do in the City ever since it became a hot topic during the run-up to the March election.
When Zodrow asked if the USACE realized their permit was crucial to receiving the state funding, Spoor responded that not only did the agency realize it, officials said if staff continued to ask about the permit, it could lead to a longer timeframe for the review.
“That’s frustrating,” Zodrow said.
“Very,” Spoor replied.
Looking back at the timeline of the park, which the City purchased from the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa for $2.7 million in February 2012, it’s easy to see how frustration could be setting in.
After forming a steering committee and soliciting public input for the design of the 13-acre park, the City Commission in office at the time approved a three-phased concept in January of 2013.
In July 2014, the newly elected commission reviewed the plan that earmarked $2.25 million in general, parkland and Penny For Pinellas funds to begin work on Phase One of the project, which would include cleaning and grading the property, installing new parking spaces and adding a 2,500 walking trail as well as a boardwalk through the mangroves along Old Tampa Bay.
Mayor Andy Steingold (File photo.)
However, during that meeting on July 21, Mayor Andy Steingold expressed a desire to proceed slowly with the project.
“My fear is this – to borrow $2.25 million to build everything on the wish list, I’m having a difficult time with it,” the mayor said.
“I would just like to see us, every year, begin to work on improving this park rather than try to tackle it with a loan right off the front.”
Steingold recommended utilizing $1 million dollars in funds to get the project started, but when staff cautioned that any delays could lead to the potential loss of grant money, other commissioners expressed their concerns.
“I know how difficult it is to win grants,” then Vice-Mayor and current Commissioner Cliff Merz said at the time. “Getting those grants and then turning around and giving the money back, I would have a hard time with that.”
Commissioner Carlos Diaz. (File photo.)
“As far as borrowing money, we’re actually taking money out of the general funds,” Commissioner Carlos Diaz said. “Those are funds that the citizens of Safety Harbor have paid in…and those funds will be paid back over six or seven years. I think this is a good time to go for the waterfront.”
Ultimately, the commission voted in September to scale back the funding and revise some elements of the plan.
To this date, while the park is open to the public and has hosted a few special events, the only work that has been done is to remove the fence that separated the spa property from the marina in June of 2013 at an estimated cost of $16,300.
Spoor said the project is set to go out for bidding soon, with work on phase one estimated to begin sometime around September 1 and end by April 1, 2016.
But it looks like the permitting snag could lead not only to a lengthy delay in the completion of the first phase, but to the potential loss of a critical component of the facility.
“We knew they (the USACE) would take the longest,” Spoor told Safety Harbor Connect. “We were hoping it would be shorter, but that’s not the case.”
“We’re working with the state, and the deadline for the boardwalk grant has already been extended,” he added. “But if we don’t get the permit and we don’t get the grant from the state, then the half-a-million dollar boardwalk is never going to happen.”
For more information on the Waterfront Park project, visit this section of the City of Safety Harbor website.
Ed. Note: This article has been amended to reflect the correct timeframe of the work to be done on phase one of the project, as well as the nature of the response of the Army Corps of Engineers to the City’s permit request.