ARIPEKA — It has been at least nine years in the making, but within months SunWest Park should be open to the public, providing trails, beaches and water recreation for Pasco County residents and, officials hope, serving as a way to draw more tourists to the area.
“This park is going to be the best you have ever seen in the world,” a jubilant County Commissioner Jack Mariano said Thursday morning during a groundbreaking ceremony near the shore of one of two lakes on the park property.
As the ceremony got underway, a chilly breeze swept across the lake, which foamed with small white caps, but the rain from the evening before did not reappear.
“What a great day,” said Rick Buckman, the county’s parks and recreation director, drawing chuckles from the crowd, many of whom wrapped their arms around themselves to stay warm.
The 30 to 35-acre park, a former lime rock mine, has two lakes divided by a berm. The larger lake will be the more active one, with plans that call for wake boarding runs, beaches, beach volleyball courts, a zip line and a ropes course in the water.
Mariano would like to see the park open by July 4, but Buckman said most likely the opening will happen sometime later than that.
Several things still have to happen, Buckman said. One of those is that the county needs to re-bid the construction contract after the county commission rejected an $8 million bid about two weeks ago.
The county had earmarked $4.6 million for the project, but the $8 million bid was the only one received.
Mariano said at that commission meeting that SunWest Harbourtowne developer Gary Grubb has offered to donate mass grading services for the beach that could shave $900,000 to $1 million from the project cost.
Grubb was at the groundbreaking where Mariano lauded him as an example of how a public-private partnership can work well.
The groundbreaking also drew a number of dignitaries, including County Commissioner Henry Wilson, Court Clerk Paula O’Neil and County Administrator Michele Baker, among others.
Jamie Maloney is one of the westside residents looking forward to the park’s opening. Maloney is with Students Survival, an organization that will soon be launching an after-school recreation program for youth at Veterans Park in Hudson.
“What a gem,” Maloney said as he looked out at the lake prior to the ceremony. “What a nice little place and what a nice opportunity for this area.”
Buckman recalled visiting the property in 1985 soon after he began working for the county. He wanted to open it even then, but that wasn’t in the cards at the time so the property was closed off.
“We had no way to operate and manage and maintain it,” he said.
When Jack Mariano was elected to his first term on the county commission in 2004, he paid a visit to SunWest with Buckman and vowed to make the park happen.
Early ideas about the park were put to paper and a drawing emerged nine years ago that represented the vision — if not all the eventual details —for SunWest Park. As part of Thursday’s ceremony, Buckman presented Mariano with a copy of that drawing, mounted on a plaque.