Lucy David is just 21 months old. She was not born when Palm Coast’s Holland Park closed at the beginning of 2015 for what, at the time, was supposed to be just 15 months. The $4.3 million reconstruction project at the 27-acre park became a $4.7 million project and took exactly twice that long, bedeviled as it was by a nasty, brutish and long war between the city and the contractor, who was eventually fired.
But as certainly as the delay was a blight on a city administration that prides itself on getting projects done ahead of schedule, the park’s re-dedication Friday seemed just as certainly to make ancient history of what Mayor Milissa Holland humorously reduced to “snags.” In Lucy’s eyes–and in her gurgles and struggles and delights, as she clambered all over one of the big toy alligators at the rim of the playground–it might as well have been invisible history: every child, and every adult for that matter, who was at the park Friday could have been the child of a new generation, as far as Palm Coast’s biggest, and now lushest and most inventive, park is concerned. Very quickly the park teemed with children who could care less what its recent history had been. They just wanted to play, and they had very many ways to do it.
“For nearly 40 years this park has been the center of playtime in Palm Coast, on its fields, at the dog park, on the courts, along the walking trail and on the playground,” Holland told a crowd of scores gathered under the park’s pavilion, at what amounted to the park’s third dedication. She framed her remarks around the second park dedication, in 2002, when it was named for her father. But she went much further back than that.
Holland told the story of when her father got a basketball for Christmas from his grandparents, when he was around 8 years old. He lived in Brooklyn at the time. He was poor. There wasn’t much by way of presents. But there was plenty he could do with the basketball. “My father took that basketball and went to a neighborhood park every single day after school,” Holland said, “and played basketball. It was his way of appreciating what that meant to him as a child, and what memories it created, and how park systems should actually inspire all ages to go and enjoy an outdoor activity.” (New York’s parks and playgrounds were just then experiencing a boom under the imperious hands of Robert Moses, the infamous parks commissioner who held the city in his vise-like grip for decades, and whose biography Holland has been reading.)
Jim Holland, who was among Palm Coast’s founding council members and who died in 2002, understood then, his daughter said, what a neighborhood park meant to families who “couldn’t necessarily afford to go to Rockefeller Center,” site of the famous skating rink at the foot of the Rockefeller Building. “The naming of this park signifies what his belief was, that if you build it, they will come, and when I look around today, with a little bit of clouds, the families of this community were so beyond anticipating the opening of this park, so it will be a centerpiece for the city of Palm Coast for years to comde.”
Holland in an interview later said she’d had a lot of anxiety during the day and got emotional when she drove up the the remade entrance of the park on Florida Park Drive and saw her father’s name radiating white against the black granite-like entrance sign (the lettering was temporary, as the more permanent letters aren’t yet ready). “He would just be so proud that this continual investment in our park system was something he really believed in so strongly,” Holland said. “I wanted to make sure that I was able to really encompass what that would have meant to him.” She also wanted to make it through the ceremony without choking or crying: but for one brief crack in her voice, she did, earning a “congratulations, babe,” from George Hanns, who until recently had served as county commissioner for a quarter century, six of those years with Milissa Holland. Hanns had known Jim, as he had much of Palm Coast’s pre-history, when it wasn’t yet a city, and when its parks were still as unborn as Lucy.
“At the Palm Coast service District advisory board, which I served on,” Hanns recalled, “we said, there’s no park here, maybe we can put a park, and ITT told me–Jim Gardner–said it’s proposed for a school site, you have to get the school board to relinquish their rights. I went to the school board meeting and I says, are you going to build a school there? And they said no, I says, could you give up your rights and put it in writing? And I took it to Jim Gardner.” Gardner, the long-time ITT executive and father of Jay Gardner, the current property appraiser, died in May. “And they donated the whole thing to the county.”
Never put it past a county commissioner, present or former, not to take at least some of the credit for Palm Coast’s few authentic landmarks.
The reborn park now has 325,000 square feet of sod and some 370 new trees, and is designed around a coastal Florida theme mirrored in its own topography. (For details, go here.) Soon to come is a splash park, or water park, to be built in the center of the current playground–a playground unfortunately severed by a continuous fence not only on the parking-lot side of the park, which makes eminent sense for safety’s sake, but through its very center, between whan will be the splash park and the pavillion area. The doorless fence is the park’s only defect, splitting the airy grounds like a highway through a neighborhood and preventing cross-park foot traffic. The splash park is in the five-year capital improvement plan and may again turn the park into a construction zone in a couple of years.
Former City Council member Jason DeLorenzo was among the politicians past and present attending the ribbon-cutting. He did so with his wife Rebecca and his daughter Laurelei, who was about to take the park for a test drive. “I’m really happy it’s finally open for the community,” DeLorenzo said. “It puts a stress on the community when you have a park closed for so long, especially this particular park, which has direct access from the surrounding streets, a lot of parks don’t do that, a lot of parks you have to drive to. But this isn’t a park like that. To have it closed for so long must have been real difficult to this particular community.”
It certainly was for Matt Bruce, the News-Journal reporter who lives in the neighborhood and who described himself as feeling “like a refugee” for the past couple of years as he looked for basketball courts to play on.
All five current city council members attended the re-dedication (as did at least three current county commissioners), among them Nick Klufas. “It exceeds all of my expectations,” he said of the park. “I leverage this park a lot when I first moved here, and I was sad the day it closed but I’m even happier now that it’s reopening. It’s a really proud moment for us. I didn’t specifically play too large of a role in any of the developments but it’s nice to see they were able to get the job done well. It is seriously impressive. They had a lot of adversity here. I’m excited about the dual dog parks, too. So many of the constituents, that’s what they talk about.”