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Shrubs are city’s solution to toddler drowning at Tampa park

— One year ago, 2-year-old Armani Pierce was found by a Tampa police dive team in about six feet of water off an algae-covered bank on the Hillsborough River at Temple Crest Park.

The family was at the park for football practice for his brother and cheerleading practice for his sister. The toddler drowned after slipping from his mother’s sight.

The Aug. 13 drowning started a monthslong process of city officials and residents searching for ways to better protect children at the waterfront park, which is a popular site for youth recreational activities.

The discussion included fencing off the water’s edge, but that was discarded as impractical. The river stretches along the entire park; a fence would block access for anyone who wanted to fish or sit near the water. City officials also worried it would set a precedent, and they would have to install fencing at all waterfront parks in Tampa.

Councilman Frank Reddick, whose district includes Temple Crest Park, worked with the parks department on ways to address the issue. The idea of fencing off Temple Crest Park came up but was rejected by the community, he said.

“They want to have free access to the river,” Reddick said.

“You have a lot of people who go fishing. It would have blocked access to the river.”

The solution was relatively low-tech but not satisfactory to everyone.

The city’s parks and recreation department recently planted two rows of shrubs that stretch 60 to 100 feet at Temple Crest Park, 8116 N. 37th St. The shrubs are not in the area where Armani drowned.

The shrubs were planted between a softball field and the river, and in a year or so will have grown enough to create a hedge that should prevent balls from rolling into the river where children might chase after them, said Greg Bayor, the city’s parks and recreation director.

“I think the concept is great,” said Bayor, who said the city did extensive research after the drowning on ways to make the park safer. “And it will look great.”

The city is doing the same thing at Robles Park and Williams Park, Bayor said.

Because the plants are still small, the city will install a temporary fence at Temple Crest Park, Bayor said.

“We tried to find something that is pleasing and enhancing the park,” Bayor said. “I would have preferred an instant wall right now.”

Morgan Johnson, head coach for the Mighty Ravens flag football team that practices at the park, said he likes the hedge idea. He thinks, though, the city should have done more.

“I think they should have put fences,” Johnson said. “At least over there where the baby drowned. If there was a fence, the baby would have been here right now.”

Parent Marquita Shepherd has an 8-year-old and 5-year-old who play with the Mighty Ravens.

She said she doesn’t bring her 2-year-old son to the field because he’s so active it would be hard to monitor him.

She says she welcomes the plants but, like Johnson, she would have liked to have seen a fence in the area where Armani drowned.

“They should have put a fence for the safety of the kids,” Shepherd said. “For every child, not just the football players.”

On a recent early evening, more than 200 youth football players, cheerleaders, coaches and parents were at Temple Crest Park.

The Mighty Ravens, formerly the Tampa Bay Ravens youth football team, has changed its practice routine since the drowning, said Reggie Reaves, the team’s vice president.

Last year, teams from different divisions practiced on two fields, one north of the river and one east of the water, he said. Now, all the teams practice east of the water.

It’s a large practice area made larger because the softball field has been covered with grass.

“I want to be able to see every kid in my organization,” Reaves said.

Reaves said he is happy with how the city has tried to improve safety since the drowning.

“I’m good with it,” said Reaves, 50.

“The city is making sure everybody else can enjoy this park.

“It’s a community park. It’s not just us.”

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Twitter: @jpatinoTBO

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