For some 25 years the City of LaBelle has hoped to find itself in a position to create a unique passive recreation park in Glades County, located on the north side of the Caloosahatchee River, just east of Barron Park The city has held a lease on the property from South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) - a lease which will be up again next April 30. That deadline has spurred the commission to action and on December 10 the board held a workshop to discuss how it can finally get some traction on creating a park.
The original 176 acres has increased to 186 acres and abuts Riverbend Estates. The property is mostly spoil and includes exotic invasive species, but includes some magnificent oaks and vegetation on the west end as well as scrub oaks, cabbage palms, some fruit and lots of native Florida vegetation, gopher turtles and birds. An overgrowth of invasive cogengrass will be a problem, but it is slow growing and may be crowded out by native species over time, according to Commissioner Julie Wilkins.
Over the years the city has put in some paths, mowed, and a fenced parking area, but little else has changed. Since the beginning, SFWMD has granted LaBelle five lease extensions of four years each.
Commissioner Wilkins told the board that she would like to spearhead the park plan, a project that was very important to her mother, former Mayor Sheri Craichy. She called this an “exceptional opportunity” and urged the board to seriously move toward a workable plan for the park.
Resident Jeff Lazar said he’d be surprised if this wasn’t the last opportunity to make such a public area along the river.
Resident Rita Dunne, who was a member of the committee working on the original plan for the site, said people want a real park that will show the real Florida.
Mayor Dave Lyons said the park will take resources like funding, vision and people willing to do the work.
The LaBelle Kiwanis Club has already promised a letter of support for the park and Commissioner Wilkins underscored the need for public and civic support.
The city does have a long-established plan for the park, but it needs to be updated and reworked.
Commissioner Wilkins told the group that SFWMD personnel had been very firm in telling her that the city needs to make some positive accomplishments at the park site or risk losing the lease. Other city personnel said they had more positive input from SFWMD.
Commissioner Hilda Zimmerly cautioned that, since the site is actually in Glades County and the city does not own it, care should be taken not to get entangled in any difficult situation. She was also concerned about policing the park area for trash and vandalism.
LaBelle Director of Finance Ron Zimmerly noted that the city has put in new trails, mows and maintains the property. The city does need grants to actually go forward with amenities. He also stressed the need to clear invasives from the area.
Commissioner Daniel Akin pledged his help and noted that the city needs to put up signage and do other simple things to promote the idea of the park.
Commissioner Wilkins said that people come here to experience the “uniqueness” of LaBelle - and this park would be a perfect complement to other sites that already attract people here - such as Curtis Honey House, the Heritage Museum and Art Gallery. She called the idea that people won’t come here as “old school thinking.”
“We are not good at communicating our assets,” she added, noting that all of LaBelle’s attractions could be bundled together in one package to attract more guests and even grow more small business.
The city has renewed its commitment to making this property into a draw for anyone interested in enjoying Old Florida nature. A new committee is expected to be named to get the issue moving along again; eventually including SFWMD, the Army Corps of Engineers and even DOT. Commissioner Wilkins said the property is open to visitors in spite of no trespassing signs.
City Attorney Angela Hill noted that the existing plan has a lot of detail and requires an environmental survey, archaeological survey, identification of endangered species and fire prevention measures at unknown costs. As it stands, the city is not allowed to use the property for anything that would garner a profit.
Anyone interested in helping on the committee or on the project in any way is invited to call Commissioner Wilkins at 673-4529.
At the same workshop, the board heard a presentation on the very popular game of pickleball and how it could benefit LaBelle residents through additional activities and even economic development by holding tournaments. There was discussion on transforming the old Barron Park tennis courts into pickleball courts. The presentation was done by two gentlemen from Riverbend RV Park, who are very involved in the park’s pickleball club.
Mayor Lyons considered that adding the nationally popular game to LaBelle could support the effort to make downtown LaBelle a destination.