via Tampa Bay Times

More than $10 million will go into adding playgrounds, sports fields, restrooms and a dog park to Raymond H. Neri Community Park.

Much of Lealman’s Raymond H. Neri Community Park, shown on Tuesday, is now open field. Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday approved more than $10 million for improvements at the park, including the addition of playgrounds, restrooms, sports fields and a dog park — a move that came after nearly 20 years of talk about adding to the park. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Pinellas County officials and residents of unincorporated Lealman have talked about sprucing upRaymond H. Neri Community Park since it was established in 2005 with additions that would give people more to do there. Nearly two decades later, those off-and-on discussions are finally set to come to fruition.

Earlier this month, Pinellas County commissioners approved more than $10 million for new play areas, restrooms, sports fields and a dog park, among other amenities.

“It’s always been a diamond that just needs to be polished a little bit more,” said David Lee, a neighborhood organizer. “It’s exciting that we finally have the funding to take it to the next level.”

The park — mostly comprised of open fields, walking paths and a stretch of Joe’s Creek — is what Lee called the “crown jewel” of the community, which is nestled between St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park and has struggled for decades with poverty and blight. So great was the institutional neglect that when residents began lobbying in 2000 for undeveloped greenery along the creek to be made into a park, some top county officials didn’t know what or where Lealman was.

An old bridge at Raymond H. Neri Community Park in Lealman, crosses over St. Joe's Creek, Tuesday, April 9, 2024.
An old bridge at Raymond H. Neri Community Park in Lealman, crosses over St. Joe’s Creek, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

In 2005, the county bought 38 acres of that land and established it as Joe’s Creek Greenway Park. It was later renamed in honor of Ray Neri, the late Lealman leader who spearheaded many of the community’s economic and civic efforts, including the creation of the park.

Discussions about adding to the bare-bones park began as soon as it opened. Some residents dreamed of it as part of a chain of parks between St. Petersburg and Seminole. Paul Cozzie, now Pinellas’ Parks and Conservation Resources director, had started with the county in 2004 and recalled early plans for a restroom and baseball field.

But talk of enhancements the park sputtered during the Great Recession, then died out in the 2010s. Not long after the park was renamed in 2018, the county asked residents what they wanted to see there and began work on a new plan.

A new playground is pictured empty during the afternoon hours before school dismissal, at Raymond H. Neri Community Park in Lealman, Tuesday, April 9, 2024.
A new playground is pictured empty during the afternoon hours before school dismissal, at Raymond H. Neri Community Park in Lealman, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Cozzie said it took a few years for the county to piece together the funding needed for the project. Most of it will come from federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars, with another $1.5 million each from a Florida Department of Environmental Protection grant and the Penny for Pinellas sales tax. The plan calls for fresh landscaping, more lighting and additional parking, and Cozzie said he hopes to install a full-time park ranger at the park.

The additions are scaled back from a preliminary plan the county released in 2019, which called for an amphitheater and an observation tower overlooking the creek. Cozzie said that concept would’ve been prohibitively expensive, so the county focused on the amenities that were most important to the most people. It also expanded on some of those ideas — the dog park in the latest plan, for example, is larger than originally called for, because Cozzie realized a smaller one would’ve been harder to maintain.

Lealman still grapples with its old problems, but developments in the past decade have allowed for some optimism. Much of it is now a Community Redevelopment Area, which means taxes generated there are put back into the community. A community center, the Lealman Exchange, abuts the park and acts as a hub of education, recreation and social services.

And Neri Park gives it a way to make a great first impression, Lee said. The park is home to the Lealman Honey and Arts Festival, which had its second installment earlier this year. Lee said he regularly encounters families who live in St. Petersburg but visit Lealman for the park.

“It’s something to point to, it’s something to be proud of, and most importantly, it’s something to protect,” Lee said. “That’s the real important thing here.”

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