Wild Spaces and Public Places funding increases accessibility at Sweetwater Wetlands Park
In pursuit of winter cranes, bird enthusiast Tom Jackson drove from Tallahassee to Gainesville. His destination: Sweetwater Wetlands Park, renowned for its unique array of birds.
When the 72-year-old walked into the park he was treated to a surprise. Right away, he noticed a sign about tram tours.
“It looked really cool,” Jackson said. “I have titanium hips, but I still try to walk as much as I can. I think this park is amazing and the tram makes it so everybody can experience it.”
Sweetwater Wetlands acquired a 10-passenger electric tram to cater to those with mobility challenges as part of an initiative aimed at improving Gainesville’s remarkable wild spaces and public places.
“The electric tram tour is fantastic, my mom booked one, she just had knee surgery. It provides her access to parts of the park she can’t reach on her own,” said Amanda Griffin, full-time park ranger at Sweetwater Wetlands.
The tram is one of many projects that have been completed as part of Alachua County’s Wild Spaces and Public Places (WSPP) half-cent sales tax, which was approved by voters in 2016. Exactly six years later, Alachua County voters approved a 10-year, full-cent sales tax that will infuse the public places budget with millions of dollars of new funding during the next decade.
According to the City of Gainesville’s Public Places website, the Florida Department of Revenue’s Office of Tax Research initially projected more than $64 million in total revenue by 2025. Since its inception, there have been 61 completed Public Places projects, with an additional four projects currently underway.
Betsy Waite, Public Places director, has worked at the department since 2018 and oversees many of its capital improvement projects. Previously, she served as a project manager with the City of Gainesville Public Works Department.
“Some projects that will be completed within the next few months include construction of a space-themed playground, located at 1001 NW 34th St. Fully accessible play surfacing and a colorful theme will boost imaginative play within the fully fenced playground,” Waite said.
“A major renovation of the 50-year-old building and pool, located at 1001 NW 31st Drive at Albert "Ray" Massey Park, is also underway. Improvements include a new roofing system, new showers, restroom fixtures, lockers, benches, interior finishes and light fixtures, parking lot reconstruction and much more,” Waite said.
After finishing a project, Waite and the Public Places team works on the rest of their agenda. Even so, the impact of these latest individual projects will be felt long after completion. Specifically, at Sweetwater Wetlands, the tram continues to leave its mark on visitors and park staff.
Darby Guyn, 27, is the recreation leader at Sweetwater Wetlands and has been working at the park for more than five years. When asked about the impact of the tram, she chuckled excitedly.
“There has been a massive influx of people because of the tram,” Guyn said. “Lots of the older demographic with mobility challenges love being out in nature, but can’t always access it.”
Guyn explained that tours last about an hour and traverse over three miles of trails at the 125-acre park. Now, Sweetwater Wetlands is one of the only parks in the area with mobility access.
“It was in the overall vision for the park to be more accessible,” Guyn said.
In providing park access to those with mobility challenges, Public Places is directly affecting the community. But not everybody is happy with the way taxpayer funds are being spent.
“It felt like the board wasn’t transparent,” former Public Places oversight committee member Joni Ellis said. “We need more planning where money can go before a tax is approved. Once you approve the tax, you lose control.”
The oversight committee reviews the city and county government's expenses, and to Ellis, this process has become distorted.
“It’s not the Gainesville I moved to in 1979,” Ellis said. “I don’t think they’re making the right decisions anymore. I feel like they’re taking funds away from land management and the Department of Environmental Protection.”
While she does have her doubts about Public Places, Ellis continues to fervently serve the community. Currently, she is the director of Optics for the Tropics, a Gainesville-based bird conservation project.
Although some taxpayers like Ellis may have concerns with Public Places’ revenue allocation, projects like the tram have undoubtedly created a buzz.
A surge of visitors has been apparent to James Eddy, 24, who recently started working at Sweetwater Wetlands as a park maintenance worker. Eddy was born and raised in Gainesville, and his love for nature led him to the park.
“Everybody that has a question out here is asking about the tram,” Eddy said. “It’s completely booked up through the end of February.”
While trimming the overgrown southern cut grass on the boardwalk, Eddy said Sweetwater Wetlands has ecological importance. The park was created in 2015 to improve the water quality of local wetlands. Now, water entering Paynes Prairie is the cleanest it’s been in more than a century.
“Building this was much cheaper than upgrading the current wastewater facility — it filters out 97% of pollutants,” Eddy said.
The staff appreciates the tram, and visitors at Sweetwater Wetlands also are noticing. Standing near a bird feeder nestled into the woods, Dorothy Dunlap, 79, saw the tram go by for the first time.
“I’ve been coming here since the park opened, but this is my first time this year. I don’t know much about the tram, but I just saw it go by,” Dunlap said. “I come here for the amazing gathering of birds. I’m a bird enthusiast.”
Sweetwater Wetlands’ serene nature and diverse wildlife is ultimately what attracts visitors. And with its extra funding, Public Places has made the experience more accessible. The half-cent increase also will make room for the acquisition and improvement of conservation lands, parks and recreation centers across Alachua County.
When asked about what the future of Public Places holds, Waite had one thing to say: “Ten more years of exciting park improvement projects.”