Despite the heat the community turned out in full force Thursday to take part in the celebration of the grand openings of two city facilities.
Golf carts picked up attendees at the parking lot of the McIntosh Preserve and gave a guided tour through several of the new trails at the property before dropping them off at the observation tower. Along the way the tour guides pointed out some of the unique wildlife along the trail and shared information on the different lengths and routes of the color-coded paths.
Once at the observation tower they grabbed a seat and city staff and elected officials walked the group through the history of the preserve.
“In an effort to preserve the property’s environmental importance to the region, 23 years ago in 1998 the McIntosh family worked with various agencies to facilitate transfer of the property to the Florida Communities Trust and the Hillsborough County Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program,” Jack Holland, director of Parks & Recreation, said. “The parcel was then deeded to the city, and by doing so, it is forever protected… exclusively for environmental, educational, and recreational purposes.”
Mayor Rick Lott talked about the beauty of the park as well as its significance for Plant City. This massive project will not only act as a pathway for solidifying the city’s water resources for generations to come, it also will in many aspects put Plant City on the map with its high quality park.
“I think when you look at the McIntosh Preserve it has all of the elements of a strong family giving a product to the city and the city, with its partners from SWFWMD to the state, come together to do something that will last for many, many generations and definitely continue to make Plant City a better place to live,” Lott said. “I want to thank the city staff for all their work and effort on this. When you look at trying to implement a process, Mr. City Manager, sometimes it takes years to get a project off the ground, but once you get it going you keep it moving and you’ve definitely done that with this team.”
Phase 1 may be complete but Lott, along with City Manager Bill McDaniel, made sure to look ahead to the changes they hope to add in the near future. This $20 million venture would add more trails and amenities and enhance the existing wetlands as well as create more wetlands to help with stormwater management.
Even the observation tower, which looks out over the wetland at an impressive 30 foot height, is the “prototype,” according to McDaniel. He said he hopes by the time all is said and done there will be a 90-foot tower on the property. The current structure has an ADA accommodation video system at its base so that those unable to climb to the top can still take in the impressive views.
Commissioner Bill Dodson shared some of the history behind securing the preserve for the city and reflected on what this would mean for the water management for the city. Vice Mayor Nate Kilton discussed his love of nature and how he has traveled all over the country going to parks just like this one. He said for him, this project was the most exciting project the commission has done since he’s been a part of it.
Then Commissioner Mike Sparkman shared memories of the McIntosh family, including moments he shared with the late Joe McIntosh, the namesake of the park. Many of the McIntosh family, including Violete Massey, formerly Violete McIntosh, were in attendance. They all gathered at the base of the tower following the last speech for the official ribbon cutting. The McIntosh family joined them for the ceremony.
Then many in attendance got in their cardio as they climbed the steps to take in the view of the preserve from the top of the tower.
Later in the day at 3 p.m. citizens and some of their furry friends once again gathered alongside Lott and city officials to witness the ribbon cutting in honor of the new improvements to Gilchrist Heights Dog Park.
While the dog park has been a staple in the community since its opening in 2014, additions were made as a part of the project. These additions include an expanded parking lot, a bridge to improve ease of access to the park and several new amenities such as an obstacle course and water bowls for the dogs and water fountains for their caretakers.
“In 2014, the city saw a need to provide an area for residents to take their canines and allow them to run in a dedicated, protected area,” Holland said. “That year, the Plant City Dog Park was born with 16,300 square feet divided into two areas for off-leash dog play. Over the years, use of the dog park increased, forcing the need for expanded parking. The only space available for additional parking was this lot on Knight Street. Access to the dog park from this parcel was cut off by the Eastside Canal, so a bridge was needed.”
Existing benches and trash receptacles will be progressively swapped out as a continued effort to improve the park.
The park’s new name was also a part of the change, recognizing its neighborhood and kicking off a series of planned improvements that other local parks will see in the future, also set to eventually bear the name of their local communities following the renovations.
“Knowing we will add more dog parks in the future, this facility has been renamed Gilchrist Heights Dog Park,” Holland said. “To recognize it’s neighborhood location and give it a unique name.”
A Capital Improvement Project began in 2018 to provide funding for the new bridge that now provides park access from its expanded parking area. While design was under way, improvements to the parking area were proposed and were funded in future years.
Construction on the renovations began in Oct., 2020, was completed in May, 2021 and the $342,000 project was completed under budget.
Lott praised all of those involved in the project, from the Parks and Recreation department to McDaniel to the budget, engineering and construction staffs, noting that it was a great moment where everyone worked together to make good things happen for Plant City.
“It’s a wonderful day, a great day in Plant City and I love this park,” Lott said. “Also, what I really, really like about this is that we’re making sure to have uses that meet the needs of everyone throughout the city. If you look at it, throughout the city, from sports to passive parks to tennis facilities to dog parks, we’re trying to make sure that we have a balance so that everyone who has needs in the city has a place with good, recreational facilities.”