Retired Lakeland Parks and Recreation Director Bill Tinsley showed off the transformation of the Bonnet Springs Park property on Thursday afternoon like a proud parent shows off a newborn baby.
“We planted 3,700 trees and 28,000 plants,” Tinsley said, sweeping his hand through the air from the balcony of the Hollis Family Welcome Center, which will house a food concession, gift shop and history center.
Lakeland is now just 4 ½ months away from the much-anticipated grand opening of the 168-acre, privately funded public park. Officials with Bonnet Springs Park announced Thursday that the park on the east shore of Lake Bonnet will open for visitors on October 22.
“I’m very happy with it now,” Bonnet Springs Park Chairman of the Board Barney Barnett said in an interview with LkldNow. “I certainly would’ve liked to have had it done sooner. It’s coming in the fall. It’s going to be a great thing to happen to the Lakeland community – well really, to the Central Florida community.”
The park was the final gift to the city from Barnett’s late wife, philanthropist Carol Jenkins Barnett, daughter of the late Publix Founder George Jenkins. Mr. George, as everyone called him, died in 1996. Jenkins Barnett passed away in December from Alzheimer’s Disease, but not before giving the go-ahead to fund what its developers liken to New York City’s Central Park.
Barnett explained that local Realtor David Bunch, who is now on the Bonnet Springs Park board, approached him and his wife several years ago about creating a world-class, natural gathering spot close to downtown. It would be situated between the railroad tracks along Kathleen Road to the east and Lake Bonnet on the west sides; Memorial and George Jenkins boulevards would form the north and south borders.
“David Bunch came to us with a proposal about this park, pointing out that all great communities have a great park. David sold us on it and Carol was interested in it,” said Barnett, 79. “It’s a shame it hadn’t opened before she died.”
In February 2018, the Barnetts’ sons, Wesley and Nick Barnett, along with Bunch and Tinsley, announced their plans for the site.
The Florida Children’s Museum, currently located on Kentucky Avenue across from Munn Park, is scheduled to open Nov. 4 as one of several focal points in Bonnet Springs Park.
Barnett said the pandemic and supply chain shortages stalled their construction at times. But the property has changed drastically since the park’s announcement and construction began in 2018. Tons of garbage had to be removed, two berms were built to block railroad and traffic noise, a great lawn was created, and multiple buildings, sidewalks and boardwalks have gone up.
“It’s very impressive to me,” Barnett said. “A big change from when you saw it and when I saw it the first time when it was just a dirty piece of property.”
Josh Henderson, CEO of Bonnet Springs Park, said in a news release that they are thankful to dozens of the park’s generous donors. “It’s been a long time coming, and our grand opening will show the wait was worth it,” Henderson said before referencing the park’s theme. “It’s about time to escape, engage, and explore at Bonnet Springs Park!”
Tinsley, who is now president of Bonnet Springs Park, gave an impromptu tour of the park Thursday afternoon. He has been responsible for resurrecting the area from a railroad maintenance yard, with 27 miles of metal rail, and a de facto homeless camp to the crown jewel of downtown Lakeland.
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Photos by Kimberly C. Moore | LkldNow
The rail maintenance yard was once the largest in the state and an economic force for Central Florida. Many notable residents live in or were from Lakeland because their parents or grandparents moved here to work for the railroad, including the late Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles.
A less savory part of the property’s history includes “The Jungle,” a homeless camp for dozens of people who left several tons of garbage behind over the years. In addition, stormwater runoff from the neighborhoods around Kathleen Road washed mountains of garbage and pollution into a spring-fed stream and Lake Bonnet over the years. The state deemed it one of the most polluted waterways in the county.
Now, Tinsley has overseen the massive cleanup of the site, along with the neighboring Florida Tile site, where apartments, a hotel and shops are planned. Contaminated soil from that site was buried beneath large berms in the park to adhere to state regulations.
Tinsley and his crew have done such an outstanding job, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Southwest District recently awarded Bonnet Springs Park its Environmental Stewardship Achievement Award.
The main buildings in the park are:
- The Welcome Center
- The Florida Children’s Museum
- The Depot featuring a rooftop garden and rooftop bar
- The Event Center featuring a grand ballroom, patio, and an outdoor kitchen
- The Boathouse
- The Nature Center
- The Butterfly Conservatory.
A pedestrian pathway will allow visitors to cross George Jenkins Boulevard from the planned development to reach the park, which will have a 1.7-mile long, 20-foot wide path for mixed use. In addition, there will be at least five miles of secondary sidewalks in the park, including a wooden walkway through the tree canopy.
The park has received support from all levels of the community, with donations going toward building amenities, which have been named for them and include:
- Hollis Family Welcome Center, featuring Watson Clinic Gallery And Rodda Family Playground
- Agamerica Heritage Gardens featuring The Joe L. And Karen Ruthven Train Playground
- Florida Children’s Museum
- Southstate Bank Plaza
- Allen & Company Family Lawn
- The Depot featuring The Anne Macgregor Jenkins Rooftop Garden, Tony Gaskins Overlook Patio, And Southern Glazers Wine & Spirits Rooftop Bar
- The Ruthven Family Playground
- Kiwanis Cares For Kids Treehouse
- Event Center featuring Citizens Bank & Trust Ballroom, Maya And Wesley Beck Patio, And George W. Jenkins Outdoor Kitchen
- Harrell Family Botanical Gardens featuring Bayer Sight Garden, Radiology and Imaging Specialists Taste Garden, Barnett Sound Garden, and Charlton Family Fragrance Garden
- Harrell Family Greenhouse
- Nicholas And Ashley Barnett Peace Pagoda
- Givewell Community Foundation Nature Center
- Ann and Ward Edwards Boathouse
- Blanton Family Lagoon
- The Mims Family Lagoon Boardwalk
- Crenshaw Canopy Walk
- Franklin Family South Mountain
- Clyne Family North Mountain
- Lakeland Regional Health Circulator
- Butterfly Conservatory
- Bunch Bridge
- Vreeland/Givewell Community Foundation Nature Bridge
- Mable The Mosaic Owl
- The Kincart And Jonsson Family Archway
- Wetlands Boardwalk
In March, BSP announced the establishment of The Carol Jenkins Barnett Endowment. One of the endowment’s first contributors was for an unspecified but “generous” gift from the Harrell Family Charities Fund. The Harrells have owned an agricultural business in Lakeland since 1941.
“Tina and I are extremely proud to continue to support Bonnet Spring Park, this park is a wonderful and transformational investment in our community,” Jack Harrell said in a press release.
In April, the Ruthven family announced a $1 million gift to The Carol Jenkins Barnett Endowment, to fund The Ruthven Family Playground, which will sit on two acres and be accessible to children of all ages, levels, and abilities.
The Ruthvens own a commercial real estate firm specializing in developing and leasing warehouse and industrial properties. They have been in business in Lakeland since 1957.
The Hollis family has also contributed an unspecified sum. Mark Hollis was a past president of Publix before his death. The Bonnet Springs Park Welcome Center is named for the family.
Allen & Company, one of Florida’s oldest financial planning and wealth management firms, announced a corporate gift of $1 million to fund the Allen & Company Family Lawn, a two-acre space that will serve as a gathering space for picnics, events, and relaxation with seating capacity of up to 5,000.
In late 2020, David Jenkins, the youngest son of Publix’s founder, announced a legacy gift. The George W. Jenkins Outdoor Kitchen and Anne MacGregor Jenkins Rooftop Garden honor his parents.
Henderson said Thursday that the price tag for the park is coming in at about $110 million, with The Carol Jenkins Barnett Endowment erstabllished to help pay for the park in perpetuity. The grand opening celebration, he said, will be something befitting the grand cost.