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County dedicates over $10 million to reimagine park

Mark Parker

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A mural by artist Cory Robinson welcomes people to Raymond H. Neri Park in unincorporated Lealman. Photo: Creative Pinellas.

Raymond H. Neri Park will soon receive a $10.2 million facelift as part of ongoing efforts to transform a historically underserved area into a thriving community.

The vacant greenspace at 4303 46th Ave. N. in unincorporated Lealman will receive a playground and “challenge course,” multi-purpose playing fields, two dog parks, picnic shelters, restrooms and a new parking area. Pinellas County Commissioners unanimously approved the project funding Tuesday.

Commissioner Charlie Justice called the much-anticipated project a “big deal” for Lealman. The rapidly evolving community is just outside St. Petersburg city limits, and its over 20,000 residents lack a “first-class” community park.

“Local governments – we buy stuff, and we build stuff,” Justice said. “But this one is a little special. This one took a lot of time and a lot of people, and it’s not just a piece of road somewhere.”

A site plan for a significantly reimagined Raymond H. Neri Park. Image: Pinellas County.

County officials dedicated what was then Joe’s Creek Greenway Park in 2005. They renamed it after Raymond H. Neri, a longtime Lealman advocate, in 2018.

Community outreach for park improvements began in May 2019 at the Lealman Exchange. The park abuts the community center, and Justice said that factored into the county’s decision to purchase the building.

Lealman has historically lacked the government attention, amenities and area median income enjoyed by surrounding cities. However, commissioners have invested significant time and money into revitalizing the community in recent years.

Justice has helped lead those efforts. He said the park project highlights the commission’s continuous commitment to improving the area and aligns with multiple other Lealman initiatives.

“It’s all part of the puzzle,” Justice said after the meeting. “But really, to me, it’s all about how this impacts families.”

Justice noted that his parents held family events and birthday parties underneath picnic shelters at the county-owned War Veterans Park in St. Petersburg. He now carries on the tradition with his children and says there’s “nothing like that” in Lealman.

“And I hope families create memories there that will be just as special as the memories I have growing up,” Justice said.

Neri Park will also feature a new trail that connects to the Lealman Exchange’s public facilities and the Joe’s Creek Greenway. A $59.5 million project will restore the expansive watershed and provide an elevated, permeable pavement multi-modal trail.

Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties has also invested significant resources into Lealman. The organization and commissioners recently dedicated several townhomes across the street from the park’s south entrance.

Justice noted that those families will watch Independence Day fireworks from the park this year. “And that really brought it home for me,” he said.

“The quality of life, the generational wealth – you can’t understate any of that,” Justice added. “But those special little family moments like that, you can’t beat it, man.”

An artist’s illustration of a reimagined Joe’s Creek, part of $84 million in projects planned for unincorporated Lealman. Screengrab, county documents.

Two dedicated areas will accommodate large and small breed dogs. Justice said officials would continue working with residents to determine playing field configurations and other project details.

The bulk of the project funding, $7.1 million, stems from leftover American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection provided a $1.5 million grant, which the county must match with Penny for Pinellas tax dollars.

The construction contract with Gibbs & Register is $8.5 million. The roughly $1.7 million remaining will cover engineering, inspection and support services.

Justice hopes residents realize county officials are following through on their commitment to transforming the area. He also credited organizations like Habitat and the St. Petersburg Foundation, which operates the Lealman Exchange, for their efforts.

“I think, if you would have asked 10 people where Lealman is – the rest of Pinellas County – years ago, no one would have known,” Justice said. “Hopefully, now people know and realize things are happening, and good things are happening, in Lealman.”

 

 

 

 

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