The approximately 2-acre parcel of land in Palmetto, Fla., that is now Connor Park, was once a busy railroad spur and depot.
Solid waste from the area was diverted into this location and pushed into the river up until 1960 when the city of Palmetto built an advanced wastewater treatment facility. Seventy acres of stormwater were sheet flowing in from the north and draining directly into the Manatee River. Now it is an environmental park that aids in water treatment.
When the city of Palmetto acquired the property in 1998, assessments were done to see whether the site was contaminated. However, no remediation plans were made. Since trusses between railroad rails were normally soaked with arsenic to keep the bugs off, the area’s soil was found to be heavily contaminated with arsenic and creosote, which is common for old railroads. Environmental contaminants, including benzopyrene, benzofluoranthene, carbon disulfide, pyrene and chrysene, were also identified. There was also a great deal of pesticide and fertilizer residue, including nitrogen, which is the leading cause of red tide, present in the soil from agricultural runoff from the tomato packing factory next door.
The Community Redevelopment Agency took over the property in 1999, but it remained vacant for quite a while. After an additional assessment was done, the property was classified as a brownfield and the Community Redevelopment Agency went about applying for grants to turn the property into an environmental park. A grant was applied for through the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the site and convert it. After the required assessment was completed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Palmetto received approval to begin the cleanup process. This was done using the grant money received from deeming the site a brownfield. During the cleanup process in 2018, 928 tons of impacted soil had to be removed from the site and incinerated.
In 2011, the Sarasota Manatee Planning Organization granted the city of Palmetto, a coalition partner, a $1 million grant as part of the Environmental Protection Agency Coalition Assessment grant. This assisted with phases one and two of the environmental assessments and the brownfield reuse planning. Another EPA Coalition grant from Manatee County was issued for $500,000 in 2015 for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and supplemental environmental assessments and planning for brownfield reuse. The Palmetto Community Redevelopment Agency was then granted $200,000 in 2016 from the Connor Park EPA Clean Up grant for remedial planning and source removal.
The city applied to the Southwest Florida Water Management District and received $100,000 toward planning and $600,000 toward the project, specifically making the reservoir a reality. A grant from the Tampa Bay Environmental Restoration fund of $50,000 was applied for to measure the benefits of sustainable development of the park through a survey and to get reef balls in the reservoir to become attachment areas for crustaceans, specifically oysters, which can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. As part of a voluntary cleanup tax credit for brownfield site rehabilitation, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection estimated the city’s credit to be approximately $800,000. In total, the Connor Park project cost approximately $3.8 million.
Between receiving the funding for cleanup and cleanup itself, the process took a few years. Once the site was cleaned up and cleared for the environmental park building project, the engineering company Applied Sciences Consulting began construction. The design began with the environmental features and then the park features followed. Park features were specifically designed not to include playground equipment and the like. Because of the contamination, the city did not want children to be given the opportunity to play in the dirt or put it in their mouths.
Connor Park includes a 500,000-gallon reservoir to help contain stormwater and provides natural water treatment before the stormwater enters the Manatee River. Aquatic plants, such as American lotus, duck potatoes, muhly grass, cattails and pickerel weed, are used to filter the pond water before it enters the river. The 76 reef clusters providing a home for aquatic life, specifically oysters, help to filter the water. The plants and fish provide food for Palmetto’s bird population since the city also has a commitment as a bird sanctuary. There are also solar tree farms on each end of the pond, an osprey nesting platform, a pavilion, a spoonbills art sculpture at the pavilion, bat houses to help control the mosquito population and a beautiful walking trail. This walking trail is planned to be connected to a developing trail system around Palmetto known as the Linear Park Trail Project.
The park got its name after Frank M. Connor, dean of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad agriculture agents. He researched plant variety and disease research control and was posthumously named Manatee County Agriculturist of the Year in 2010. Since the family had been instrumental in the railroad and agricultural aspects, they also wished to assist in the cleanup. Therefore, the park was named Connor Park in their honor. An official dedication ceremony was held in June when Connor Park was completed. Ed Johnson, interim Community Redevelopment Agency director, stated, “It is very popular in the community. Folks that were naysayers in the beginning are now preaching the word of Connor Park and the brownfield program.”