New Park for Fort Walton Beach (FL)

FORT WALTON, 5/14/02: Charlene Greenwald, chair of Fort Walton Beach’s Beautification Committee, is a resourceful community activist.

She found the Trust for Public Land (TPL) while searching the Internet, hoping to create a public park instead of watching the inevitable development of the last remaining waterfront site overlooking Santa Rosa Sound in the Florida panhandle.

“I decided the city should own this property,” she says.

For assistance, she turned to Kevin Mooney, a TPL project manager based in Tallahassee, who secured all but $25,000 of the funding needed to purchase the former restaurant site and an adjacent property from the Florida Communities Trust state grant program.

The site will become a new urban waterfront park. It will feature gardens and natural areas, pathways, picnic tables, a boardwalk and a pier with slips for canoes, kayaks and other small boats.

For years the waterfront site was the home of a popular restaurant called the Sound, where dining patrons enjoyed an expansive view of Santa Rosa Sound. When Hurricane Opal hit the panhandle coastline in 1995, the restaurant building was damaged beyond repair. A fire two years later left a pile of charred debris, two concrete slabs and a pair of unsightly asphalt parking lots. The untended property offended Ms. Greenwald and her volunteer committee.

“It sits directly across from City Hall, had been vacant for years and was a horrible eyesore. The city has been spending time, energy and money on revitalizing our little town, and this was an important piece,” she says. “Kevin and TPL were extremely enthusiastic and an incredible help. If it weren’t for TPL, we would never have been able to get this property so expeditiously, if at all.”

“This is a great opportunity to preserve a one-of-a-kind piece of property,” says Reid Silverboard, Fort Walton Beach’s city manager. “It will continue to provide a view of our waterfront, which has attracted so many people here.”

Silverboard said he expects the park to be fully developed within about three years. The first year will focus on cleanup, including removal of the concrete slabs and asphalt parking lots, and then planting the area with trees and other native vegetation. That will be followed by restoring and extending the small fishing pier to provide a place to tie up small watercraft.

The publicly accessible city park will also serve as a terminus for the proposed Walton’s Walk, a waterfront boardwalk proposed to link other public spaces along Santa Rosa Sound. The park site represents the last remaining property along the sound not developed or slated for development.

Travelers along historic U.S. Highway 98 will now be able to glimpse sweeping views of the sound at the park, which will also provide waterfront recreation accessible from nearby neighborhoods and education opportunities for local community college students, according to Gene Peters, Fort Walton Beach director of parks & recreation.

“It’s really the last tract of open access to the waterfront along Santa Rosa Sound,” Peters says.

About TPL: Founded in 1972, the Trust for Public Land is a national nonprofit organization working exclusively to protect land for human enjoyment and well-being. TPL helps conserve land for recreation and spiritual nourishment and to improve the health and quality of life of American communities. Operating in Florida since 1975, TPL has helped save more than 240 sites as community parks, waterfronts, historic sites, greenways and trails. The Wall Street Journal’s Smart Money magazine recently named TPL the nation’s most efficient large conservation charity for the second year in a row, based on the percentage of funds dedicated to programs.