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LAKELAND — It will take a community effort to realize Bonnet Spring Park, the name chosen for the 160-acre, privately funded park intended to be a centerpiece amid Lakeland’s inevitable west side growth, organizers said Wednesday.In the future, residents and visitors will be able to take a swan boat ride across Lake Bonnet, walk the park’s trails, play on its playgrounds and enjoy a meal by the shore, Wesley Barnett said, speaking for his family alongside his brother, Nick Barnett.
They are the sons of Carol Jenkins Barnett and Barney Barnett. The family has taken a founding role in the project that was announced Monday.
The park will be “a catalyst for progressive community development,” Barnett said, but it can’t be a Barnett effort alone.
By securing about 200 acres of land — 160 acres will be used for the park — on the east side of Lake Bonnet, the project has been put in motion so it can be done, he said. With other support, it will be done.
Bonnet Springs Park will be a “truly world-class park here in downtown Lakeland,” Nick Barnett said, but there’s a great deal left to do.
The organizers, including Lakeland real estate broker David Bunch and the former Lakeland Parks and Recreation director, Bill Tinsley, said it will take between $50 million and $60 million to complete the park and furnish it with a perpetual care fund.
That the land, which is one-half a former train yard along Kathleen Road, and one-half untouched woodland and marsh, remained available after the rail yard was closed in the 1980s is something of a miracle, Bunch said.
“This site, I believe, has a heavenly touch for still being available,” he said. “This wants to be a park and it’s going to be.”
The park organizers, working under the limited-liability corporation Windsong Park, revealed proposed elements of the park Wednesday, including a botanical garden, an amphitheater, a dog park, extensive boardwalks and trails, and a mini-train — a touch reminiscent of the property’s history.
Those concepts are liable to change as the team selects a “world class” designer and receives input from the community.
The funding plan is a mixture of donations, revenues from park activities — concerts at the amphitheater, some features that may have entry fees and at least one restaurant is planned — and from the sale of the former Florida Tile site adjacent to the park property.
The Florida Tile site is undergoing site work to remove the wall around it and to make it suitable for high-density commercial and residential development, Bunch said.
Once sold, the proceeds of that deal will be fed into the park.
Bunch, of Hauger-Bunch Realtors, said he expects the park and Florida Tile development will jumpstart growth on Lakeland’s west-central district. “West Lakeland is just waiting for something to happen,” he said.
Speaking underneath a live oak tree estimated at 250 years of age, Tinsley said the project faces some significant challenges.
The east side of the property is contaminated from its use as a rail yard that once had 26 miles of track on it.
Heavy equipment was working on the property during the presentation, which was held within the wild section of the parcel, about halfway down into the 50-foot elevation change as the land slopes into Lake Bonnet.
The group is also working with the Homeless Coalition of Polk County to relocate the homeless inhabitants of the property, Tinsley said. The so-called “Chinese Jungle” has long been a home for some in Lakeland’s street population.
The quarter-mile path from the old oak tree to the creek and natural spring that gave inspiration to the Bonnet Spring Park name passed by three established homeless camps. More were visible across the street, though organizers said the population has been declining as the inhabitants have been moved or left.
Some of the camps were surrounded by handmade stick fences and orange nets used at construction sites. Though the camps have clearly been recently used, none of the inhabitants was there Wednesday afternoon. When asked when the organizers planned to hire employees for the park, Tinsley said “Some of the first employees we plan to hire are camping here now.”
“We have an awful lot of hard work that needs doing,” he added.