via St. Pete Catalyst

Pinellas County administration held a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday morning for the highly anticipated Raymond H. Neri Community Park Improvements Project in the unincorporated Lealman area. 

The $10.2 million project aims to transform the community park into a state-of-the-art recreational facility for residents. Planned enhancements include a larger children’s playground, adult fitness course, small and large dog park, covered pavilion, open playfield, new landscaping, parking areas and new and resurfaced trails.

Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice and Pinellas County Director of Parks and Conservation Resources Paul Cozzie delivered brief remarks before participating in the ceremonial groundbreaking at the park, located at 5175 45th St. N. in St. Petersburg.

“On my way to work every day, I pass two community centers and three or four nice city and county parks. We don’t really have that kind of same quality park in Lealman,” Justice said. “Growing up, [I went to] those county parks for birthday parties, family events […] To have that opportunity for the folks in Lealman is just about quality of life.”

Funding for the project comes from the American Rescue Plan Act, Penny for Pinellas and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Plans for the Raymond H. Neri Community Park Improvements Project include a children’s playground, adult fitness course, dog park, picnic shelter, restrooms, open playfield, new landscaping, parking areas and new and resurfaced trails. Screengrab: Pinellas County documents.

The park first opened in 2005 on 38 acres. Pinellas County has hired Gibbs & Register to construct the park.

At the groundbreaking ceremony, both Justice and Cozzie mentioned that the idea of turning the once-empty land into a rich community resource has been in the works for decades. They told stories of interactions with Raymond H. Neri, the late community leader and advocate for the Lealman area for whom the park is named.

“Ray would occasionally call me up and say, ‘I need you to come out here. There’s an issue I want to talk to you about,’” Cozzie recounted. “He would say, ‘This is a real big deal for the Lealman community.’ So this project has been in the works for almost two decades.”

The Raymond H. Neri Community Park Improvements Project is part of Pinellas County’s broader efforts to revitalize the Lealman area, an unincorporated part of the county that has struggled for decades with poverty and neglect. Other initiatives include establishing the Lealman Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) to reinvest local tax revenue, bringing new resources and programming to the Lealman Exchange community center and the future Joe’s Creek Restoration and Greenway Trail project.

“The Lealman community needed more. We’re seeing a lot of younger families moving into the area [and] a lot of people investing in their homes,” Cozzie said. “This really will be what we consider a community park: a centerpiece for the community to come out, bring their families and enjoy the outdoors.”

Revitalizing the park will also provide additional programming opportunities for the organizations that serve the area, such as the Lealman and Asian Neighborhood Family Center and the Pinellas Sheriff’s Police Athletic League (PAL). 

“There are going to be youth activities, opportunities for sports and programs like that. It’s a great, great progress for the people here,” Justice said. “It’s going to be really special.”

Construction is expected to be completed by early 2025.

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