Casting an eye toward the future of the Research Forest Tract, Effingham Industrial Development Authority learned Thursday what it will take to transform some of that land into a huge recreational area.
IDA members and staff visited Chain of Lakes Regional Park in Florida’s Brevard County last month, and park designer Bill Row told the IDA what it takes to put something like that together.
“One of the keys to the success of the project is the entities,” Row said, noting the collaborative efforts of Brevard Community College, the city of Titusville, the Brevard County commissioners, the St. Johns River Water Management District and Parrish Medical Center.
The community college didn’t put forth any capital into the venture but donated a large section of its campus for stormwater management. It’s given the campus, Row said, a more attractive appearance. Enrollment has grown and the partnership with the hospital on the park has led to the college beginning a nursing program.
The Chain of Lakes Park is about 300 acres and about 90 acres is owned by the county, Row said.
“There are no fences. There are no visible property lines,” Row said. “It is one destination.”
The park includes a 45-acre stormwater detention lake system. As a government entity, St. Johns River Water Management District has purchasing power and bought a 75-acre parcel as part of the park.
In addition to the recreation facilities, the park serves another purpose, collecting and retaining stormwater.
“Chain of Lakes’ primary function is stormwater management,” Row said. “They are far exceeding the expectations. This lake system is doing more than what they expected. This has turned into quite the commercial development.”
The stormwater management aspect also has been critical in the park receiving grants, Row added.
“Many, many grants went into this,” he said. “The single most important thing is the grants. Without the grants, this project would never have been successful.”
According to IDA CEO John Henry, the work to get grants is extensive.
“You have to have the cost estimates and the engineering done. You have to have the due diligence done,” he said, adding some grants may require a match of well in excess of 50 percent. “There’s a lot of money out there if you have someone who knows all the ins and outs of all the grants.”
The park’s activity features include two lighted soccer fields, another soccer field that can be divided into six regulation-size soccer fields, five lighted adult softball fields, two lighted youth softball fields, nature trails and a nature observation tower. There is fishing, on a catch and release basis, in the lakes.
The park is home to several cross country races that bring in an economic impact of $3.5 million annually to Brevard County. One race alone, a flrunners.com invitational, brings in $2 million, Row said.
Row said having community participation in planning the park also was a big step in its foundation and its success. The steering committee for Chain of Lakes Park included representatives from the local recreation agencies and the high school athletic departments.
“You need a lot of different people. You need a lot of different ideas,” he said.
Work on the Chain of Lakes Park started in 2000 and the last phase was completed in 2007. The park was done at a cost of $7 million and grants covered nearly $900,000 of the cost, Row said.
Preliminary plans for the Research Forest Tract call for more than twice as much land as Chain of Lakes encompasses to be devoted to recreation. But there are still questions to answer, such as where to dig the ponds needed for stormwater retention and resolving access to the tract.
“We’re at such a preliminary stage at what we want to do with our property,” IDA Chairman Chap Bennett said. “Three months ago, we didn’t have a vision of what it could be.”
Said Row: “I can’t stress to you enough this is where you need to start. You’ve got to have a vision, and you’ve got to get it out to the public.”
One advantage the Florida park has that any such park in the Research Forest won’t have is its proximity to Cape Canaveral.
“When we built this, we didn’t think about NASA,” Row said. “This turns out to be one of the closest shuttle launching viewing areas.”