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Updated: 03/26/2014 08:00:03AM

Park expansion

plan ‘doable’ tourism official says

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Polk County’s top tourism officials believe that a dramatic expansion of the Fort Meade Outdoor Recreation Area is “doable.”

Details of an ongoing feasibility study for city land at the current park site calls for everything from a new boat launch site on the Peace River to a 100-room hotel, county fairgrounds, horse barns and stables, RV camping and a replica fort.

“This is very doable. This is not a pipe dream. It’s achievable,” said Mark Jackson, the director of Central Florida’s Tourism and Sports Marketing. “This will attract people to Fort Meade, and that’s what we want.”

Jackson was on hand last Wednesday at the Fort Meade Chamber of Commerce monthly Third Wednesday lunch meeting, along with consultant Glenn Clover. The city was awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant of almost $50,000 to do a feasibility study of expanding recreational opportunities on the several hundred acres of land the city owns at the existing recreation area, much of which is undeveloped south of the park’s current footprint.

“What we’re looking at is the big picture, or a vision of what Fort Meade is going to look like in five, 10, 20 years, that’s the lighthouse we’re shooting for. This is something we strongly believe in,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of people with a lot of resources behind this, but in this situation, it will take the community to get behind it and support it.”

He likened it to the effort behind building the Lake Myrtle Sports Park in Auburndale, which today generates about $27 million in economic impact to the county. He said at least 20 different public and private partners came together to make the park a reality.

“It can be done, we just have to be patient and make it happen,” he said.

He said with the addition of Streamsong Resort, along with events held at the Florida Flywheelers venue and the Alafia River Rendezvous, there is a growing critical mass in southwest Polk that can attract visitors to support them all.

“Let’s take a look at the future, let’s package all of this, and create a true destination,” he added.

He noted that before Streamsong ever opened its doors to the public two months ago, they already had 17,000 room nights sold.

Clover has spent almost a year meeting with groups and stakeholders who might be interested in seeing such a park become a reality.

“You have to have a giant dream when you start anything. This plan is a giant dream,” Clover said. “This is more than a recreational development. This is economic enhancement to Fort Meade.”

The idea is to create private sector jobs and businesses; either directly or indirectly from an expanded recreation area. “We’re not ready to build anything yet, we’re not ready financially and planning-wise, but before you can build anything, there’s a whole gob of stuff you have to do up front, and the first is to figure out what it is you want to build there,” he noted.

Clover indicated the feasibility study should be wrapped up no later than mid-June.

“Once that is done, part of the conclusions of that will be what part of this should we start with, and then we would go looking for the different partners. No one person, or agency or entity is going to fund this whole thing. It would develop in pieces, and each piece would have different groups. For each piece, we have to put together the right group of parties. It is a big undertaking. The city has the land, the city has the idea, but eventually it’s going to private investment and government funding.”

Actually, the first step to the park makeover is well underway. The Florida Department of Transportation has earmarked $700,000 for a new hiking trail that will closely parallel the Peace River, starting near the current park entrance and working its way down to near Mt. Pisgah Road.

Construction of the trail itself is slated for 2015.

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