LAKELAND – Drivers heading west over the George Jenkins Boulevard overpass can easily catch a glimpse of more than a half dozen construction vehicles, scurrying back and forth over rolling hills like oversized ants at work. It’s a team effort bringing a new life to Bonnet Springs Park.

Hundreds of newly planted oak, magnolia and palm trees dot the landscape of the former Lakeland rail yard. Bill Tinsley, president of Bonnet Springs Park and former Lakeland parks director, said roughly 40 to 50 more trees are being planted daily.

Steel beams rise up out of the ground alongside the trees as construction crews race to complete 23 key features, including nine buildings, at least three playgrounds, a 2.5-mile circulator path, boardwalks, bridges and specialized gardens. The main parking was being paved Thursday.

“The buildings and the mountains will all come together as one landscape,” Tinsley said, looking over the construction sites. “It’s all very intentionally designed.”

Despite a March 2020 groundbreaking, only one building has been completed — the maintenance shed. Priority has been placed on the Hollis Family Welcome Center, home to the the Watson Clinic gallery and Rodda Family Playground. It not only marks the entrance to the park but will provide offices for its staff. It will be closely followed by the Event Center with the Citizens Bank & Trust ballroom, Maya & Wesley Beck patio and George W. Jenkins outdoor kitchen on the north end of the park.

The COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on construction of the 168-acre park. In early 2020, Tinsley said the pandemic was almost beneficial, as many contractors were available and seeking work. As the area’s economy has started to recover, the park has suffered setbacks from supply chain interruptions and material shortages.

“We have suppliers telling us we can’t get it period,” Tinsley said.

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Josh Henderson, CEO of Bonnet Springs Park, said there has been a need to make substitutions for some building materials. It has not forced any changes or edits to the planned features of the park.

It’s had almost the opposite effect. The generosity of local philanthropists has led to additional features on the original design. A concrete pad has been poured for a butterfly conservatory near the Harrell Family Botanical Gardens, already in full bloom with bright yellow-orange and periwinkle blue flowers. The Joe L. and Karen Ruthven Train Playground will provide children with yet another play space inside the AgAmerica Heritage Gardens at the south end of the park.

Environmental milestone

Bonnet Springs Park reached a major environmental milestone Thursday morning, putting an end to decades of water pollution in Lakeland.

Tinsley sat in a golf cart with The Ledger overlooking the Blanton Family Lagoon, a 6.5-acre lake dredged for the purpose of allowing future visitors to take kayaks and paddleboats on the water. Floating across the top of the water were an assortment of discarded plastic soda bottles and trash that normally would have wound up in Lake Bonnet.

“This has been going on for over 80 years, but not tomorrow,” Tinsley said, with a shake of his head.

The park “pulled the plug” on its new stormwater system Thursday morning that will redirect runoff from Kathleen Road and about 300 acres surrounding the site. The polluted stormwater will enter a large underground vault with a stainless steel cage to capture all the plastic debris and trash that have washed downhill. The water will be released into a series of three ponds seeded with about 28,000 plants to naturally filter the water before it enters the lagoon.

“This filtration system will be what starts to clean the environment,” Henderson said. “Our lagoon flows into the surrounding wetlands and Lake Bonnet. It will keep plastic bottles from eventually making their way to the bottom of the lake or land on the other side.”

Diverting stormwater runoff has also allowed the park to save one of its iconic features: a more than 200-year-old oak tree that serves as the basis for the park’s iconic symbol. The stormwater once threatened the tree, eroding soil around its roots.

Hurdles remain

Tinsley told The Ledger he’s optimistic that Lakeland’s landmark park can have construction substantially complete by the beginning of next year, then another few months to fully staff the park before opening to the public.

Other staff members were more wary of setting an exact time frame. While great progress was made in April and May, June marks the beginning of the 2021 hurricane season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted it will be an “above-normal” hurricane season with an estimated three to five major hurricanes.

Henderson said he’s concerned that the park’s structures and landscape are exposed to the elements and could take a beating from a passing storm. Bad weather and heavy rainstorms have caused major erosion to the developing site in the past, according to Tinsley, something he hopes will be controlled by the new stormwater system coming online.

There are also still supply-chain issues, Henderson pointed out, as the post-COVID economy continues to fight to get back on its feet.

Over the next few weeks, Tinsley said the number of workers on site is expected to triple from 50 to more than 150 as roofs go up and exterior walls are finished, allowing more detailed work on the interiors to commence.

The park is still seeking a third-party vendor to run the sitdown restaurant, Tinsley said, but has decided to operate the café patio and Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits Rooftop Bar itself.

The park owns the 22-acre former Florida Tile site, located off Lake Wire just south of Bonnet Springs, and it has entered a contract to sell the parcel to a developer. Multiple offers were received, Henderson said, but the park’s board was “very selective” to choose one that matched its vision for a walkable community that includes a mix of residential, commercial and retail uses.

The property’s sale is in the due diligence period, Henderson said, with no set closing date. When sold, 100% of the proceeds will be used to fund the future of Bonnet Springs Park.

Tinsley has worked with co-developer David Bunch, a Lakeland Realtor who envisioned the park and purchased the land, plus the help of Lakeland philanthropists Barney and Carol Jenkins Barnett, daughter of the late Publix founder George W. Jenkins.

Five years later, Tinsley said he’s committed to seeing the park through.

“We knew it was huge, I knew it was huge when we took it on,” he said. “I knew this was a horrible piece of property in terms of the damage it had. It was a brownfield. It was abandoned. We’re taking that negative and turning it into a positive.”

Once completed, Bonnet Springs Park will be larger in size than Tigertown and Lake Parker Park combined, Tinsley said.

Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7545. 

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