PALM HARBOR — The long, strange saga of the Wall Springs Park observation tower is finally coming to a close as county officials hope the rebuilt structure, along with refurbished decking leading up to it, will be open in time for the Fourth of July.
Forty-five feet tall and built in 2004, the tower has been shuttered since it burned to the ground in the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2013.
While no cause was ever determined or any culprit caught, county officials have been working to replace the structure, which offered stunning views of the park and its natural surroundings.
But it hasn’t been easy.
After the fire, "the only thing left standing was the approach ramp," said Paul Cozzi, director of Pinellas County Parks and Conservation Resources. "So, we started the process of rebuilding, and fortunately it was covered by insurance. But we had to negotiate the payment because, by the time the tower burned, it was worth a lot more than when it was originally built due to additions like the bridge to the island and other improvements made over the years."
Cozzi explained that once the settlement was agreed upon, officials began rebuilding using modern materials with fire-retardant coating, as required by code. But they did not account for changes in the Americans with Disabilities Act, resulting in a halt to the work.
"We were just about done with the approvals process when we found out the building codes had changed since the original construction and they required an ADA ramp to each level of the tower, not just the first level," Cozzi said. "Of course, that was something the insurance company fought back on, but they eventually agreed to it, so it’s been going on for the last 250 days or so."
The cost of the repairs totaled $1.7 million, with all but $300,000 covered by insurance, Cozzi said. Additional refurbishing to the decking not covered by insurance came to about $160,000, he said.
Meanwhile, public interest in the repairs has been high.
"I got calls and emails monthly for the last seven years asking, ‘When are you going to open it back up?’" Cozzi said. "We learned a lot through this process. Everything that could possibly come up has."
Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers, whose district includes Palm Harbor, said the situation has been unfortunate, especially for residents and visitors who love to use the park at 3725 De Soto Blvd.
"The reconstruction has taken away access to the trails and a big chunk of the park, and that really upsets people," he said. "But everything has to be done the right way to get things back online. Obviously, it’s been a long time since it’s been closed. We made a mistake — you need to have handicap access. It got away from us and we had to make it right."
Eggers said he was told the structure would be open by mid- to late June, and he agreed with Cozzi that the situation has been a learning experience for everyone involved.
"This was definitely an outlier, fortunately," Cozzie said. "But we finally see light at the end of the tunnel."