The project to turn 168 vacant acres west of downtown Lakeland into the showcase Bonnet Springs Park is on schedule to open this spring or summer, the park’s developers say.

The privately funded public park will span from the intersection of George Jenkins Boulevard and Kathleen Road to the eastern shore of Lake Bonnet.

“Now that we have our buildings up, the majority of our permits in place … we’ve got delivery schedules, we’re feeling very confident that we will open in 2022,” said Bill Tinsley, president of Roundhouse Holdings LLC, the company developing the park.

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 “We will be substantially completed with the park by next spring. We don’t have an announcement yet until we’re past any COVID delays,“ Tinsley said.

A new, 40,000-square-foot home for the Florida Children’s Museum, formerly known as Explorations V Children’s Museum, will open inside the park toward the end of the summer 2022, according to Kerry Falwell, its chief executive officer. The current location, at 109 N. Kentucky Ave., will close 30 to 60 days before the grand opening.

The museum will have a delayed opening partially due to the exhibits, including “hundreds of professionally built pieces,” being installed after the building is constructed, Falwell said.

Photos of Florida Children’s Museum construction. The top photo, from LkldNow, shows the view from Kathleen Road and was taken last week. The other photos, provided by Florida Children’s Museum, were taken a few weeks earlier.

“Each piece has an engineered shop drawing and is hand-built by top industry professionals … There are extensive safety checks throughout the process since the exhibits are intended for children. In addition to architectural and engineering review, most structures also go through an evaluation by a playground safety expert,” Falwell said.

The museum has contracted with Philadelphia’s Studio Ludo to be the safety expert, Falwell said.

Construction on Bonnet Springs Park began two years ago, with the groundbreaking happening in March 2020. Tinsley said they haven’t had issues securing contractors during the pandemic but receiving materials in a timely fashion has been an issue.

“If you’ve got tile that’s not manufactured in the United States, the delivery of that tile that would typically have been a four-week delivery can be four months now,“ Tinsley said. “That has cost us some delay.”

They’re also planting 3,700 trees. Many of them will be along the circulator, a 20-foot-wide path that travels in a 2.5-mile loop around the park, connecting the numerous buildings. It’s about 80 percent paved, according to Tinsley.

“We look forward to seeing lots of people on that path using it for their exercise daily,” Tinsley said.

He added they hope to have a tram operate on the circulator on weekends. Tinsley said Friends of Bonnet Springs Park has also funded the purchase of senior accessible workout equipment to be placed in two locations inside the park.

Developers still haven’t selected a restaurant to go into the welcome center. Due to many restaurants struggling during the pandemic, Tinsley said they are waiting to make that decision.

Rear view of the welcome center, with human-sculpted hills beyond.

“It’s one of the real post COVID impacts that we’ve seen. It’s been a real struggle … for that industry. They continue to struggle. They can’t even find labor force in many cases to operate venues they have open now,” Tinsley said. “We’re being patient because we want to be very particular about who goes into that facility.”

There will be a “Depot Café,” which will be operated by park staff,  when the park opens. It will serve chicken tenders, hamburgers, and have a rooftop bar that’s connected to the great lawn.

“The great lawn is an event space in the center of the park. It’s a little over two acres. It will allow for special events like car shows, and concerts for up to 4,000 people,” Tinsley explained.

Along with the Florida Children’s Museum, welcome center, Depot Café and great lawn, the park will also have a botanical garden, event center, nature center, lagoon, canopy walk and treehouse. The event center will have a wedding lawn.

The goal is to start hosting events and weddings in the fall of 2022, but they’re not accepting bookings just yet, according to Bonnet Springs Park CEO Josh Henderson.

Josh Henderson

Henderson previously worked at the Gathering Place in Tulsa, Okla., and has been working for Bonnet Springs Park for the past year.

“I am excited and honored to be part of this amazing project. I was fortunate to be part of opening another park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is very similar to what we have here at Bonnet Springs Park. It is so exciting to get experience that again,” Henderson said.

“Watching the excitement for the park built around the community is a lot of fun. I really think Bonnet Springs Park will change the way people view Lakeland. We are about to having something unique here that only exists in a few places around the United States.”

The park will be free to enter; there will be an admission fee for the Florida Children’s Museum.

The park will largely depend on endowments,  perpetual care funds and the help of hundreds of volunteers. Other revenue streams to sustain it include event bookings, and revenue from park programming, according to Tinsley.

“It’s going to take the entire community to sustain the park,” Tinsley said.

“We’re looking for 600-plus volunteers on an annual basis,” Henderson explained.

There are various ongoing fundraisers. Park benches are still being sold for $2,500. Two hundred will be constructed throughout the park; Tinsley said 175 of those have already been purchased. Community members can also become a “Friend of Bonnet Springs Park” for a donation of $35 or more.

Another revenue generator is the sale of the property across George Jenkins Boulevard from Bonnet Springs Park. Tinsley and commercial real estate broker David Bunch, manage the Lake Wire Development Company LLC, which owns the former Florida Tile property east of the park.

They’re currently negotiating with Carter & Associates of Atlanta to purchase the property and build a mixed-use residential and retail complex. The project received design approval from the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority in November.

The owners plan to bring the contract before the City Commission for approval soon, according to Tinsley, who added that the profits from that sale would benefit the park.

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Stephanie Claytor has been a broadcast and digital journalist in Lakeland since 2016, covering Polk County for Bay News 9 and currently free-lancing for LkldNow. She is an author of travel and children's books.

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