Board backs amphitheater for local park

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Parks and Recreation Advisory Board this week agreed to support a request from the Big Pine and Lower Keys Rotary Club to research the feasibility of building a small amphitheater on vacant area inside the Big Pine Key Community Park.

The idea got its impetus from the recent successful hosting of the annual July 4th celebration at the park for the first time.

That event was the best-attended event ever staged at the park and included a music component with live bands.

“The only thing the event lacked was an amphitheater to provide a great musical experience,” said Dave Tuttle, Vice-President of the local Rotary.

Under the original plans for the park, a large field was left vacant as the potential future footprint for a community pool. It’s that vacant area where Tuttle proposes the amphitheater.

“A facility like that could host so many events that are missing in the Big Pine community right now,” Tuttle said. “We could host music in the park events, cultural programs, plays, all those things we currently have no venue for on Big Pine Key.”

Tuttle said that the amphitheater at Marathon’s community park is used for a multitude of events to enrich the cultural ambiance of that city, and the Upper Keys has the cultural center at the Murray Nelson Government Center.

“It’s very likely that a pool on that site isn’t ever going to happen,” said Steve Miller, parks board chairman. “We might as well think of other ways to put that property to use.”

There are community pools in Key West and Key Largo. The former was a city sponsored project and the latter was built after a $3 million dollar individual donation.

“The chances we get a $3 million gift for a pool on Big Pine are slim,”said Miller.

Monroe County has a long-standing policy against funding public swimming pools because of the potential liability associated with those facilities, making development by the Board of County Commissioners a remote possibility at best.

Other than the irregular event such as the July 4th celebration or the Sheriff’s Office National Night Out, the vacant park area gets little use right now except as a play field, said Miller.

Most of the youth baseball action occurs at Watson Field, as does adult softball, and youth soccer makes its home at St. Peter Church.

Board members discussed possible funding mechanisms for an amphitheater project, suggesting that the county might be able to request Tourist Development Council bricks and mortar project money for the initial construction.

“The events would be open to our visitors as well, so TDC money makes some sense,” said Miller.

Big Pine is part of the TDCs District Two, the smallest of the districts in terms of bed taxes collected. A portion of those bed taxes yearly are earmarked for bricks and mortar projects. District Two has historically had a hard time spending that money because of a lack of easily accessible vacant land and much more stringent development regulations than other areas of the county.

There is a small community center at the park that is rarely used, but it is in no way large enough to host the types of events Tuttle hopes to see there.

The parks board agreed to ask the county to have staff begin researching what it would take to change the future use of the vacant portion of the park from a pool to an amphitheater.

“That’s the first step,” said Dr. James Boilini, parks board member. “Once we have that information, we can look into other recommendations to have staff research what it would take and from where we might get funding.”

In other action, the board learned that Monroe County has received state grants for the development of scenic overlooks in conjunction with the construction of the Overseas Heritage Trail. One of the project outlined for that money is an observation pier for the Big Pine Community Park.

A pier had originally been suggested as a phase two development for that park, but plans have languished on a shelf gathering dust for going on 10 years.

The board was also told that the BOCC had approved seeking a lease from the state Department of Environmental Protection for property known as the old swimming hole on Big Pine Key. The land is located on the south side of US 1 at the island’s western terminus.

Once regularly used by locals as a gathering place, the area was closed by DEP following a pilot whale stranding rehabilitation years ago.

County staff developed a site plan for the area that includes a dingy dock, outreach kiosks to teach visitors about the abundant wildlife and flora located on Big Pine Key and its surrounding waters, as well as a nature trail with identification placards to serve the same purpose and a possible sunset observation tower.

Later plans have added the possibility of a public restroom facility for use by users of the Heritage Trail bicycle/pedestrian path.

According to County Transportation Planner Trish Smith, the pier project, if all permits can be obtained from the necessary state and federal agencies, might get off the ground next year while the swimming hole project is probably three years out due to grant funding cycles and permitting issues.

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