The Lakeland City Commission today voted 5-1 to reduce the sale price of a piece of land for the developers of Bonnet Springs Park to $25,000 – a $399,601 reduction.
The property is a 2.6-acre triangle at the southwest junction of Kathleen Road and George Jenkins Boulevard/Sikes Boulevard – directly across the street from Bonnet Springs Park, a 161-acre, $110 million privately funded public park that is set to open Oct. 22.
In 2018, the city agreed to sell the property for its appraised value of $424,601 to Lake Wire Development Co., a subsidiary of the nonprofit organization building the massive Bonnet Springs Park.
Lake Wire Development also owns the Florida Tile site just south of the triangle. Once they purchase the city property, they plan to sell the combined parcels in a 22-acre package to Carter Acquisitions LLC of Atlanta for a reported $9.925 million.
Proceeds from that sale, which is expected to close in about a month, will be placed in an established endowment that will fund maintenance of Bonnet Springs Park for 100-plus years, Bonnet Springs Park officials told city commissioners Friday morning.
Bonnet Springs CEO Josh Henderson confirmed in a Friday letter to Mayor Bill Mutz that after the sale of land to Carter is completed, Bonnet Springs and Lake Wire Development “would be happy to provide a deposit record showing the full amount of the price reduction, $399,600, has been deposited into the Carol Jenkins Barnett Endowment Fund,” which will “sustain the the operation and maintenance of Bonnet Springs Park in perpetuity.”
Carter has plans to build a complex on the site that would ultimately include 630 apartments, shops and restaurants.
The request to reduce the price of the land came in a letter to Mutz from three Bonnet Springs Park officials: Barney Barnett, chairman of the board of directors, Jack Harrell, Jr., chairman of the executive committee, and Josh Henderson, chief executive officer.
In it, they reminded Mutz that he and the rest of the City Commission left the door open for a price reduction in the contract to sell the land that they approved in 2018. At the time, Bonnet Springs had asked that the land be donated; the city declined, agreeing instead to sell it at its appraised price with five years to close on the deal.
The requested waiver, the letter said, is “in consideration of the completed construction and October 22, 2022, planned opening of … Bonnet Springs Park … widely acknowledged as transformational within Lakeland” and the planned mixed-use development and its 630 apartments.
In a slide presentation supporting their request, the Bonnet Springs officials said the park developers have:
- Removed 36 tons of illegally dumped garbage from the park site.
- Paid $550,000 in impact fees so far.
- Spent $8 million to remediate a stormwater pollution source on Kathleen Road.
- Assisted the city of Lakeland in a $43 million state grant to clean Lake Bonnet.
- Secured the developer for the former Florida Tile site.
- Established an endowment fund to maintain the park so that no taxpayers funds will be used.
Commissioners commended the entire project.
“The entire area – city, state, local, nationwide — has access to this, so it’s one of the few things that we’re going to approve, potentially that will affect everybody,” said City Commissioner Mike Musik. “This is a homegrown project that we can all have pride in and and utilize.”
Mayor Bill Mutz called it a “brilliant opportunity for us as a city to be able to help support something that has been orchestrated and beneficially provided so well.”
City Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley reminded her colleagues that the city has worked with Bonnet Springs developers from the start of the process seven years ago.
“This park started with volunteers and a commitment of the founders to not only enhance Lakeland, but to take something that was useless, frankly, and a piece of land, a swath of land that was just again needed to be remediated and needed to be viewed at with a vision that they brought forward,” she said before thanking Barney Barnett and his late wife Carol Jenkins Barnett, along with David Bunch and Bill Tinsley. “There’s 160 acres in the middle of town that no one has touched since the railroad left and it has all this damage and they saw something that was so much more beautiful and so much more versatile … The rest of the world, frankly, can look at Lakeland and say, oh my goodness, wow.”
Roberts McCarley and Commissioner Phillip Walker commended the Bonnet Springs Park developers for remembering the area’s history and for going door to door in what has historically been known as the Robinson Quarters, now called Crescent Heights, and including them in the decision-making process. Many are the descendants of Black railroad workers who settled the area. Bonnet Springs Park created a private entrance for neighbors to utilize the park.
“It’s important that we not forget that the neighbors, as I hear them talk and share with them and talk with them, appreciate sort of what’s happened to support their situation,” Walker said, adding that he hopes the city will also work to improve the historically Black neighborhood north of the park.
City Commissioner Stephanie Madden became emotional as she talked about how the park and City Commission actions in recent years might repair some of the social injustices that have been done and remembering the residents of Moorehead, a Black neighborhood that was taken by eminent domain and torn down to build The RP Funding Center in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She said she hopes that the park would help to bridge a divide between the black and white communities in Lakeland.
“I’m hopeful that our community is setting an example,” Madden said. “I know I have benefitted from being on this City Commission with Commissioner Walker. And the team at Bonnett Springs Park, the investment that you’re making (for) the children and grandchildren, and a legacy that those investments are making are really just unfathomable. Really it’s awe inspiring. And I know my words do it so little justice, but I’m just so proud of our community and for the citizens to not see this as a shining city on the hill with our heart is to bridge that divide. It is to maybe undo some wrongs that we’ve done in the past and to make sure everyone in Lakeland has the best and brightest possible quality of life. I’m excited.”
City Commissioner Bill Read said he commends the developers, but he thinks the economy is in for tougher times and the city will have to tighten its belt farther down the road, so he was not in favor of the price break on the land sale.
“This is not only going to probably be one of the best facilities in the state of Florida, but probably in the nation,” Read said. “However … this is the citizens’ tax dollars. We have taxes that’s probably going to have to increase and we have agreements for expenses we’re probably going to have to incur … I’ll vote no, but I think it’s going to pass. And I’m glad it’s going to pass.”
After the 5-1 decision, Mutz also commended the developers, particularly realtor David Bunch, who was in the audience.
“I think that passage should reflect the culmination of a great vision, relentless heart on your part to never quit, to keep dreaming, to see that that could become something beyond our wildest comprehension and we give you a hearty applause and the entire Bonnett Springs team.
Afterwards, Bunch said he was glad the city could recognize the importance of the park.
“I feel over the top,” Bunch said. “It’s just so nice to hear the comments this morning.”
Commissioners also approved a tax-increment financing arrangement for the property that is expected to save Carter $3.87 million over the next 10 years. Carter, through Lake Wire Development, had requested an even higher level of tax-increment financing. The agreed-upon level was a compromise between the Carter request and the city’s normal level, which would have provided $1.5 million in savings over five years.
The tax-increment financing request was approved unanimously, even though at least three commissioners expressed reservations about the higher-than-normal level possibly setting a precedent.
Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native. She can be reached at [email protected].