Kailynn Bannon | Nov. 11
After over seven years of planning and development, Bonnet Springs Park opened as a hub for the Lakeland community to escape, engage and explore. Located in central Lakeland, the 40,000 square foot park had its grand opening on Oct. 22 and 23.
Bonnet Springs is a privately funded, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization within walking distance of Lakeland’s downtown district. Their mission, stated on their website, is “to enrich our community through nature, culture, recreation and education.”
The newly opened park highlights the deep history in Lakeland. In 1884, the city was created by the laying of railroads across Florida. Lakeland’s railyard closed down nearly a century later due to diminished railroad activity and worker layoffs, leaving a deep environmental footprint.
In 2016, David Bunch, Bill Tinsley, Carol Barnett and Barney Barnett came together to develop a master plan for Bonnet Springs Park after buying Lakeland’s railyard and more than a dozen adjoining properties. The 168 acres of land transformed into a park with the addition of 3,700 trees, 28,000 plants, 11 buildings, a 1.7-mile walkway and a six-acre lagoon.
When the railyard closed, the empty land and surrounding woods became a homeless camp. These homeless squatters were displaced as the park began construction. Before the property could transform, it had to be restored and remediated of contaminants including trash, spoiled soil and arsenic.
Wendy Stephens, Senior Director of Human Resources at the park, talked about the clean-up and decontamination process.
“It probably took the better part of five years to truly go through the clean-up process,” Stephens said. “They wanted to give the land some shape so they created the mountains that are our North and South Mountains. When there’s any sort of arsenic or that type of poison in the soil, you can’t completely remove it so you basically have to bury it. So a portion of what those mountains are is to make sure that the arsenic is far enough down in the soil that it wouldn’t contaminate anything else.”
Work on the park began in March 2020 – right when the nation went into quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The park did not have any issues finding contractors throughout the pandemic, however, receiving materials punctually was an issue.
Unfortunately, Hurricane Ian’s landfall in September impacted the park. Several old trees were uprooted and they lost a week of work towards opening weekend due to storm damage clean-up. Quickly restored, the park’s grand opening was not delayed.
“For our soft openings we weren’t able to have some of our playground areas completely finalized,” Stephans said. “We had to do a lot of cleanup with tree limbs and with so many of our trees being brand new and not fully rooted yet, it did have us having to replant a lot of the small trees that we had. Overall it didn’t do too much damage so we were lucky that it didn’t push back our grand opening at all.”
The grand opening had a huge turnout. People all across Lakeland came out to enjoy the weekend’s activities and see what the new park had to offer.
“For our first day of the event, we had about 25,000 people come, and for the second day we had between 10,000 and 15,000,” Stephans said. “We probably have about 5,000 people per day during the week, and then weekends are much bigger, probably looking at closer to that 10,000 mark.
When first arriving at Bonnet Springs, visitors are led by trails spread throughout the whole park and covered by countless trees. There are mothers pushing strollers, friends taking a walk while catching up, couples going on picnics and parents playing with their children.
Married couple Wanda and Kenny Harris visited the park for the first time and were amazed by what they saw.
“So far from what I see it’s clean and beautiful,” K. Harris said. “It has a walkway, a trail and it has a park for the kids to enjoy themselves. It just feels clean and safe.”
Mr. and Mrs. Harris are seniors who came to Lakeland five years ago to settle.
“To come to a place like this, it’s what we like to do,” W. Harris said. “We like to walk and we like to see new things. We needed something like this in Lakeland.”
They both believe that this park will be a great addition to the city’s community. The beautiful sights and massive space make for a great spot to gather.
“It improves the community in Lakeland…it looks like something from out of a movie,” K. Harris said.
Whether visitors are looking to experience exciting events or enjoy a laid-back afternoon, the park offers sights and activities for anyone: a butterfly conservatory, a lagoon, a greenhouse, botanical gardens, playgrounds and more are available to park-goers with no cover charge. Other park staples include the overlook patio, rooftop bar, event center, and boathouse.
“We have a boathouse where right now it’s just a great sitting area where you can overlook the lagoon, but soon we’ll also have paddle boats and kayaks for rent,” Stephans said.
The Florida Children’s Museum, formerly Exploration V Children’s Museum, relocated from downtown Lakeland and re-opened on the park’s property on Nov. 4.
Local resident Denise Stull returned to Bonnet Springs after visiting during the grand opening weekend. She says that coming during the opening week was fun and it calmed down the following weeks afterward.
“I was here for day 2 of the opening and it was nice,” Stull said. “I could tell there were a lot of people here, but it didn’t feel like there were a lot of people because there’s so much space. There’s a lot fewer people now.”
Stull expressed her appreciation for a spot to enjoy the outdoors without ever having to leave the city.
“I like the walking trails, and I like how you’re in the city but it doesn’t feel like you’re in the city. You’re immersed in nature,” she said. “I think it’s going to help people get healthy and be out in nature more.”
Along with everything the park already has to offer, Stephans said the park is planning on holding varied events in the near future, including cultural festivals and a wine and food festival.
“We’re planning to hopefully do some Christmas lights,” Stephans said. “I know the Coca-Cola Christmas Truck is going to be coming out at one point during this upcoming month.”
Madison Meisenbach, freshman at Florida Southern College, commented on the impact that Bonnet Springs has on the local community.
“I believe the new park is a great addition to the city of Lakeland. It fits with the redevelopment initiative the city has been working on,” Meisenbach said. “Now, families and the community have another wonderful place to gather and connect at.”