Al Lopez Park keeping the lights on for runners
TAMPA -- Avid local runner and coach Debbie Voiles didn't like how difficult it was to find a safe place to run in the evenings, especially after the time change earlier this month. She wondered why a city that celebrates its professional sports teams and hosted major sporting events such as the Super Bowl lacked a convenient, accessible and safe place to run in the evenings. "To me it was insane," said Voiles, 59, founder of Run Tampa, a local running club. Voiles and other runners now have at least one more option.After she complained to city officials and the city's parks and recreation department, the city agreed earlier this month to open Al Lopez Park until 9 p.m. for runners, walkers, bikers and skaters. "It means they'll run more hours; they'll run more miles in the winter," said Voiles, who trains runners at the park during the week. "It's centrally located and a lot more people have access to it." The Cordelia B. Hunt Community Center at the park, at 4810 N. Himes Ave., is open until 9 p.m., and people are encouraged to use the lighted, paved trail. But the entire park isn't open in the evening, such as the picnic shelters and unpaved trails. Greg Bayor, the city's parks and recreation director, said extending the hours made sense. "We're trying to get people to our parks for a healthy America," Bayor said. Susan Baker, who trains with Voiles' group as she prepares for a half-marathon in January, said she welcomes the news of the expanded hours. During the spring and summer when daylight lasts longer, the park is packed in the early evening with joggers, bikers, soccer games and parents with their children on the playground. She knows it won't be the same during the fall and winter, but the new hours could inspire more people to come out, she said. "I want to see this park busy and used," said Baker, 64, of Temple Terrace. "I want to see people living healthy, seeing the benefits of exercising.'' During a recent night, only a few people were jogging and walking in the park, even though the new hours of dawn to 9 p.m. were in place. "People don't know yet that the park is open after dark," Baker said, "that it's lit up and it's safe." Some runners say more still needs to be done. Lynn Gray, president and founder of the running group Take the First Step Club, worries about the safety of keeping Al Lopez Park open late for runners. She said while there are lights, paved areas of the park have pockets that aren't lit. In some cases, burned out bulbs haven't been replaced. Gray encourages people to seek out established groups running in well-lit neighborhoods such as Carrollwood, Davis Islands and along Bayshore Boulevard. "Anytime you go to a place to run and there aren't a group of runners, you have to be careful," Gray said. Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said the police department was notified of extending the hours at the park and is supportive of the idea. "People should take the same safety precautions at Al Lopez Park as they would in any other situation, whether in their neighborhood, parking lots or really anywhere," Davis said. People at the park should be mindful of their surroundings and stay in areas that are populated with people, Davis said. "Trust your intuition about a person or an area. React to your intuition and avoid a person or situation if you're unsure. If something tells you a situation is not right, it probably isn't," she said. Jack Shammas walked around the park with a friend one recent evening. Both liked the idea of extending the hours. Shammas, a tax accountant, works nearby and uses the park to avoid the evening rush hour. He encouraged the city to contact local businesses in the area to publicize the new parks hours. There won't be an immediate swell of people coming to the park at night, but over time a culture can be created, Shammas said. His concern right now is the lighting, he said. "I think if they have more lights it would be better," said Shammas, 26, of Clearwater. "There are some areas where it's too dark. It (the lighting) helps the safety thing."
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