Bonnet Springs Park, now under development as a major recreational and educational space near downtown, announced Wednesday that it has received a large donation toward the construction of a botanical garden that will be a significant feature of the park.

According to a news release, the gift comes from the family of Jack Harrell Jr., CEO of Harrell’s, the Lakeland-based company that manufactures and sells fertilizer, seed and turf grass management products. The gift will be designated for the Jack and Tina Harrell Family Botanical Garden and the Jack and Tina Harrell Family Greenhouse, according to the release.

Bill Tinsley

The amount of the gift is $1.3 million, said Bill Tinsley, CEO of Bonnet Springs Park. In addition to the cash donation, the Harrell’s company has committed to providing an in-kind donation of fertilizer and other nutritional products for the 160-acre park’s grass, trees and foliage for 25 years.

The gift is the first announced fruit of Bonnet Springs Park’s capital campaign, which has just launched its “silent” phase, soliciting gifts privately from a list of up to 400 people, said Dr. Donna Henricks, co-chair of the steering committee that is heading the campaign. The campaign’s goal is $25 million, and Henricks said her committee hopes to raise 70 percent of that prior to beginning the public phase in March.

“We’re confident we’ll get more than $25 million. Anything we raise above that will go to the park’s perpetual care fund,” she said. “If people come on the property, it’s a very easy sell. They see how it’s going to make Lakeland a destination.”

The goal is less than a fourth of the park’s projected cost of $110 million, of which $80 million will go toward construction, Tinsley said. He predicted the foundations for the major buildings on site would be laid this fall, with an opening tentatively scheduled for the spring of 2021.

Bonnet Springs is being called Lakeland’s Central Park, comparing it to New York City’s vast urban green space, and its leaders are hoping it will have the effect of creating renown as well. Its design includes a 2.5-mile walking/running track, nature playgrounds, botanical and sculpture gardens, a 7-acre lagoon for paddle boats, a welcome center with a restaurant and an event center.

Artist’s rendering of a botanic garden at Bonnet Springs Park

The centerpiece of the park will be a relocated Explorations V Children’s Museum, which would nearly double its space to 40,000 square feet. Henricks said part of the funds raised in the capital campaign will go toward the construction of the museum.

The steering committee’s other co-chair, former Lakeland Chamber of Commerce President Kathleen Munson, called Bonnet Springs “a once-in-a-lifetime project” that local businesses and individuals will be eager to support.

“From quality of life to economic development, everyone gets it. It’s going to be a game-changer for the entire region,” she said.

Henricks added the park’s impact will extend well beyond Lakeland.

“There are 3.6 million people within an hour’s drive of Lakeland. This is not just a city park,” she said.

Since October, the project has picked up momentum, with the formation of the steering committee and other committees. As many as 70 people, including numerous prominent civic and business leaders, are on board. Tinsley was formally hired as CEO after several years of working in a volunteer capacity, and on Monday, Bonnet Springs’ second employee, director of development Heide Evans Waldron, started work.

Waldron, a graduate of George Jenkins High School, has spent her career in the nonprofit sector, most recently as development director for Florida Symphony Youth Orchestras in Orlando for the past eight years.

“One of the things that attracted me to Bonnet Springs is the quality of life it offers,” she said. “In my childhood, I lived on a farm, and I know green spaces are important for quality of life for adults and children, for social interaction, for the environment and for education.”

Bonnet Springs Park is unusual for a public park in that it will be owned and operated entirely by a private nonprofit organization. Numerous urban public parks, such as The Parklands of Floyds Fork in Louisville and Piedmont Park in Atlanta, are collaborations, with public ownership and privately funded conservancies to maintain them. But other than providing rights of way and consultation, the city of Lakeland is not contributing financially to Bonnet Springs.

“The city believes in this park, but they can’t afford to do this,” Tinsley said.

He estimated that the park when completed will cost $3.5 million annually to operate, and part of those funds will come from “profit centers” within the park – rental of paddle boats, the restaurant and use of the event center. Other revenue is expected to come from ongoing donations, grants and revenue from the park’s perpetual care fund.

The park expects to rely heavily on volunteers to defray costs, and that support will be drawn from Friends of Bonnet Springs, an initiative to rally broad public participation financially and in contributed work hours. Kimberly Elmhorst, president of Friends of Bonnet Springs, said the goal is to have 2,000 members of the organization, who would pay $30 annually for a membership, before the park opens. In the two months since the initiative began through social media, it has already gotten about 140 members and has a newsletter with 400 subscribers, she said.

“We’re trying to spread the word about how people can support the park. We’ll need people to weed gardens and so on,” Elmhorst said. “We need to make sure we have buy-in from the community.”

Work has already begun on clearing and decontaminating the site – at one time the largest rail yard in Florida, Tinsley said – which had been classified as a brownfield. The soil remediation has received some assistance from the federal government in the form of up to $1 million in tax credits which will be resold for 90 percent of their value, he said.

Tinsley confirmed that the land, located just west of Kathleen Road between Memorial and George Jenkins boulevards, was purchased from CSX Corp. in 2015 for $4.6 million, including a strip of frontage property along George Jenkins Boulevard to provide access to the site. The design of Bonnet Springs was created for an undisclosed sum by the international landscape architecture firm Sasaki.

Descendants of Publix Super Markets founder George Jenkins have been heavily involved in getting the project off the ground, including his daughter, Carol Jenkins Barnett, and her husband, Barney Barnett, who is president of Bonnet Springs Park; Nicholas and Wesley Barnett, sons of Barney and Carol Jenkins Barnett, both of whom sit on the board of directors; and another George Jenkins grandson, Gregory Fancelli, a member of the advisory committee.

Tinsley praised the Barnetts for substantial financial commitments to bring the vision for a grand urban park to reality.

“They really believed Lakeland’s future highly depends on a park like this. Every great city has a great park,” he said.

However, citing confidentiality, Tinsley and Henricks said the amount of the Barnetts’ contributions to the project is not being disclosed. Tinsley also declined to say how much Bonnet Springs has received so far in total donations, but he said the balance sheet “has never gone in the red.”

Henricks said she recently visited New York’s Central Park and noted that in the mid-19th century, it was a swamp. Designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, it was opened to the public in 1858 and is now reportedly the most-visited urban park in the United States.

“It was worth doing,” Henricks said. “How often do you get the opportunity to change your community in such an impactful way?”


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