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A clash over a park in northeast Tallahassee turns bitter

The Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency's projects have all increased in cost
Miller, Jessica
Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency's agenda for May 11, 2023
The Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency's projects have all increased in cost

A battle over a park in northeast Tallahassee is scheduled to continue into next month after a tense meeting last week of the Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency. All the commissioners support the park, but some disagree --bitterly -- about its planned scope and cost.

The last Blueprint meeting was emotional for County Commissioner Brian Welch. Stories about kids who have to drive across town just to play sports got to him.

“There are kids on the north side, the northeast side of town, who are not participating because it is not convenient or because their parents have to work so hard to try to raise the money before they play the first down of football,” Mike Wallace said during the public comment part of the meeting.

Wallace is vice president of Big Bend Pop Warner, a youth sports group. He says some years the association spends $7,000 renting private fields for practice because there’s no public park in northeast Leon County.

“Before they cheer, they have to raise 6- or 7,000 thousand dollars to go and rent Chiles High School for practices,” Wallace told the Blueprint board.

Welch is serving his first term and is up for re-election next year. He ran on a promise to deliver the park, which has been in the works for 17 years and was espoused by Welch’s predecessor, Bryan Desloge, whom he defeated in 2020.

[sniff] “It breaks my heart to sit here and listen [sniff] to Mike Wallace and Kip West and Kendall Powell talk about taking their kids all over this town,” Welch said.

The Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency was first created through a voter referendum in 1989 and is funded through a one-cent sales tax. Voters re-authorized Blueprint in 2000 and 2014. Its functions are infrastructure and economic development, and its board consists of all the city and county commissioners.  

Now on Blueprint’s slate of projects is the Northeast Park. The plan was to locate it next to Roberts Elementary and Montford Middle Schools along Centerville Road.

But Blueprint’s budget for the Northeast Park has grown from $12 million in its estimates for this fiscal year to an updated projection of $18 million. Add in $4 million for borrowing costs and it’s $22 million.

County Commissioner David O’Keefe points out that all the cost estimates for Blueprint projects have gone up, some much more than the Northeast Park.

“It’s important to talk about every dollar, and $6 million is not nothing, but we didn’t get to talk about and we haven’t yet talked about a combination of the Airport Gateway, the Northeast Connector Bannerman and the Welaunee Extension,” O’Keefe said. “Together, those costs increased $100 million -- with no increase in the projects. There’s no extra road, extra sidewalk. Just cost increase.”

Blueprint’s plan for the Northeast Park includes 4 full-size lighted baseball fields with batting cages, scoreboards, dugouts, and bullpens… one full-size lighted multipurpose field, one basketball court, 4 regulation pickle-ball courts, 2 lighted sand volleyball courts, a playground and picnic shelters, walking trails, open lawn space, a restroom facility, a community room, a maintenance building, paved parking and an electric vehicle-charging station.

“Folks, this is not an area park.”

In the most recent meeting Mayor John Dailey raised concerns about the scope of the project.

“This is a regional, tournament-ball facility that is going to be built in the heart of a residential area, Welaunee, across the street from Killearn on a two-lane Centerville Road,” Dailey said. “This is a $22 million park.”

Mayor Pro Tem Dianne Williams-Cox criticized the cost -- pointing to Four Oaks Park near Southwood, which the city built in-house for less than $3 million.

“The city Parks and Rec staff and underground utilities and many others worked together collaboratively and created this park for $3 million. Now, I’m not saying that’s what it would cost in the northeast, but I’m just saying it could be less than [$] 22 [million].”  

The city and county commissioners, who together make up the Blueprint board, agreed to take up the matter again on June 15th, when they’ll hold a six-hour workshop followed by a two-hour meeting to vote. Meanwhile, Welch has been firing away on social media and Dailey has put out a statement, saying he’ll keep an open mind. Here’s Welch:

“For the mayor of our city to lead the effort to try and scuttle a park that is so needed on such baseless claims as its scope and budget is really, really questionable, and it’s really, really shameful,” Welch said. “And I feel like the voters of northeast Leon County see this…”

Dailey acknowledges that the county park will cost more because it will be contracted out. But even if it costs twice as much as Four Oaks Park, he says, $10 million would be plenty.

“You still have $10 million approved in the budget, which should be enough to build a northeast park,” he said. “But of course, we’re going to sit down and review the amenities at the park and the scope of the park -- for an area park -- that is to service the neighborhoods in the unincorporated area of northeast Leon County.”  

Blueprint has been controversial before. In 2022, battle lines were drawn over whether to spend $27 million on repairs to Doak Campbell Stadium at Florida State University. Dailey and Williams-Cox voted to spend the money; Welch voted not to. Welch’s side lost.

Follow @MargieMenzel

Margie Menzel covers local and state government for WFSU News. She has also worked at the News Service of Florida and Gannett News Service. She earned her B.A. in history at Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in journalism at Florida A&M University.