Historic Downtown Plant City is officially getting a new mural, sort of.
The public came out to Whistle Stop Cafe, 102. S. Collins St., Tuesday morning to meet with artist Keith Goodson, who has been tasked with replacing the massive mural on the back of the cafe. During the presentation, the crowd listened as Vice Mayor Mike Sparkman, who spearheaded the effort to bring the mural to life, spoke about the desire to restore a high-quality piece of art to the wall.
“We think this is outstanding and we have one of the best artists in the world over here, Keith Goodson… This is going to be a masterpiece and it’s going to be well worth putting it on the wall,” Sparkman said.
Sparkman thanked Sunbelt for providing them with a lift for Goodson to use for no charge and praised Greg James with A Pro’s Plastering on their stucco work that will be the base for the mural. He also emphasized he was standing there today as a citizen passionate about the project and not as a city commissioner. This is a privately initiated event with a long history in the community.
Goodson took some time to speak about his gratefulness for being welcomed into the community to create the mural. He said it should take around six to eight weeks, weather permitting, to complete. Goodson has completed several murals across Florida including some in Lake Placid and Port Charlotte.
“Murals play an important part in our community,” Goodson said. “Not only does it give you a sort of holographic look of what the city is all about, but it’s to bring together community and pride. And how many know we need pride today in what we do in our communities? I’m honored to be able to do this one, honored to be able to refurbish what we had before. If you need to, come up and say hi. Every day you’ll see this progress.”
Arts Council President, Marsha Passmore talked about the organization’s passion for ensuring art is in the community and their partnership in bringing this mural to life.
“This has been a longtime goal for a lot of us,” Passmore said. “The Arts Council would like to say that we are guilty of bringing it before the city, as well as Mr. Lofstrom, that this mural needed some work. So here we are today and it’s coming to fruition and we are very excited about that.”
The fiery history of mural park
The space behind Whistle Stop Cafe and Krazy Kup has been known throughout the city as the Collins Street Mural Park. Its name came after artist Paul Hetrick painted “The Heart of Plant City,” a 14 foot by 70 foot mural that took approximately 400 hours to complete, on the back wall of the cafe. The image featured 53 figures, including 25 historical people and iconic landmarks in Plant City, such as the Union Station Train Depot, 1914 Plant City High School and the Fort Milton E. Hull Armory Building at the Strawberry Festival Grounds.
Now the park is called Unity in the Community Park. Soon many upgrades will be added to keep the park up-to-date for the community.
“The Heart of Plant City” arrived on the scene when the 2009 Mural Committee — consisting of Sandee Parke Sytsma (Chairman), Scott Anderson, Fred Johnson, Jerry Lofstrom and artist Paul D. Hetrick — was formed by Lofstrom, owner of Whistle Stop, to come up with the unique idea for an art piece. The mural and the parking lot behind it were dedicated on Jan. 10, 2010 to celebrate the City of Plant City’s 125th birthday on one of the coldest days of the decade.
But this wasn’t the first time a mural had been in the area. There was an ache in the community that Lofstrom hoped this new mural would fill.
In 1974 John Briggs, a local artist, donated his time to paint a large mural as a tribute to the legendary history of the railroad in Plant City across an exterior wall of a historic, multi-businesses building on Collins Street.
Then, in 2005, the building was brought to ruin after Angelica Ruth Lockett tossed an ignited cigarette onto a pile of bedding in the back of a shop that was owned by her ex-boyfriend, Mark Simpson. Said shop was one of many businesses that were in the building located on the 100 block of South Collins Street. Briggs mural was on the back. Lockett was charged with seven counts of arson and the building was encased in flames.
Detectives said that Lockett had only intended to cause damage to Simpson’s shop, but fire is a beast that is rarely contained and within moments the entire building was facing its voracious appetite. The mural suffered smoke damage from the event, but in the end that wall was the only part of the building that remained.
It became a beloved piece of history and many in the community saw it as a sign of perseverance. The city, however, saw it as a safety hazard and three years later it was torn down overnight.
That was when Lofstrom decided to form a mural committee to bring art back to the block. Briggs told The Observer in 2015 that he had been approached in 2009 by the committee to paint a new mural, but that he “refused to take on the project unless the wall was first prepared with stucco. Hetrick was commissioned instead. The committee fundraised to bring an epic mural to the area and many donations came in from the families of those in the community who were depicted in the mural. With its creation many felt that ache lesson that had arrived after the sudden removal of the wall bearing Briggs’ artwork.
At the Collins Street Mural Park there was a sculpture called “Eternal Time,” which was designed by artist Robert G. Woods. It sits on top of a buried time capsule with memorabilia from that time period. Currently the sculpture has been removed for safekeeping as Goodson works on the new mural. The time capsule underneath is scheduled to be unearthed and opened on the city’s 200th birthday, Jan. 10, 2085. A 25-foot flag pole donated by the Plant City High School Class of 1969 is also at the park, along with a water fountain in memory of the late Mayor Sadye Gibbs Martin.
It made a tranquil nook in the community. However, the brick wall didn’t agree very much with the paint and it didn’t take long for the massive artwork to show some signs of wear and tear. In 2015 Hetrick told The Observer that the peeling paint was just one part of the issue. The bricks themselves were not designed to cling to paint and according to Hetrick, the grout and bricks are deteriorating into a sand-like consistency.
A not so simple fix
The timing could not have been worse. The same year “The Heart of Plant City” was painted by Hetrick the city passed an ordinance banning any new murals in the historic district. The exception being that it did not affect the maintenance of existing murals.
The ban came on Oct. 12, 2009 in a vote that many locals joke is reminiscent to the strict decision in the fictional film “Footloose.” In the movie, a town council banned dancing. In Plant City a mural by Blake Emory, a rendition of Norman Rockwell’s “April Fools,” was put up on the side of a building and shortly after someone complained that the painting had a penis in it.
Well, that accusation sent the town into a flurry. Emory insisted it wasn’t intentional and immediately altered the section of the mural in question, but it was too late. City Commissioners quickly voted 4-1 to create an ordinance that would essentially restrict any new murals in the historic district in order to prevent it from happening again. Only City Commissioner Bill Dodson — who is still serving at the dais — voted against the decision stating he wanted to find a more thought out and complete ordinance rather than an outright ban.
Majority ruled, the ban was put in place and it’s now been more than a decade since the ordinance passed. Existing murals can be maintained. But the cost to do so for “The Heart of Plant City” was extensive and then there were the hurdles to get the art to stay on the brick. “The Heart of Plant City” originally cost around $25,000. It would cost at least this much, if not more, to redo it.
So for years it simply sat there and further degraded. There have been many however, that had never given up hope. Behind the scenes a handful of community members lobbied for support from the city to get it refurbished and fought tooth and nail to find a solution to the unique issue.
After a long wait, their hard work paid off.
Because “The Heart of Plant City” is grandfathered into the existing ordinance, Lofstrom had the opportunity to create something special at its location. Using the unique privilege, due to the prior artwork, he asked Sparkman to get the ball rolling.
Goodson was present Tuesday morning as were many city commissioners and community members that had worked tirelessly to find a solution to the mural issue. Stucco has been affixed to the back of the wall and Goodson showed off a rendering of the artwork he wants to paint onto the structure. The first section of the mural was outlined on the wall as well for the attendees. Following the event he was ready to get right to work.
The image features some iconic faces in Plant City including Henry B. Plant, the railroad and hotel magnate that is the namesake of Plant City, Officer Lee Candis, the first African-American police officer for the City of Plant City, and E.L. Bing, a noted educator and Hillsborough County Commissioner. It will also have notable Plant City landmarks like the Florida Strawberry Festival, the Nettie Berry Draughon Municipal Building (aka City Hall), Plant City’s 1914 High School, the strawberry water tank, the historic Bing Rooming House Museum, the State Theater and more.
Near the portion featuring the festival grounds there will be a shining corvette, which represents the annual raffle conducted by local charity Unity in the Community. The center of the piece will have a strawberry field in front of City Hall.
Workers dressed in early 1900s attire will be in the field and a young girl will be prominently displayed that “represents not only the strawberry-loving youth of our community, but also all of the visitors who flock to Plant City for the annual Florida Strawberry Festival and a chance to enjoy our tasty crop that makes Plant City famous as the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World.” The girl is Sarah Lofstrom — the daughter of Jerry Lofstrom and his wife Marti — who was killed in 2015 after being struck by a car.
The far right will feature an homage to some of Plant City’s longest serving mayors: Sparkman, who has served for nearly three decades as a city commissioner, mayor and vice mayor, Rick Lott, who has served for nearly two decades as a city commissioner and mayor, and Sadye Gibbs Martin, who served as a city commissioner for 15 years and as mayor for seven terms and vice mayor for four terms and was not only the first woman to become mayor of Plant City, she was the first female African-American elected mayor of a major city in Florida. The mural will also include Bill McDaniel who began a career in law enforcement, served as PCPD Chief and now is Plant City’s city manager.
With the stucco the image should last. Goodson said he believes they should be able to get at least 15 years out of the mural and hoped it would have many more.
The, just recently renamed, Unity in the Community Park will be receiving more than a fresh piece of art. The goal is to install a new fountain, have semi-circle benches facing the mural, new landscaping and lighting to illuminate the wall at night.