Residents living near Gillespie Park have been trying to clean up their neighborhood park and ensure that it stays that way.
First, a year ago, there was a park-wide cleanup to remove human waste, condoms and toilet paper. A group of 40 to 50 homeless people, who had been regularly gathering in the park, had left the trash. Then, earlier this month, residents teamed up with the Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences to refurbish and paint seven benches in the park.
But then, residents noticed another problem. A few weeks ago, Dale Orlando, who lives a block from the park, was concerned when she saw several homeless people stacking a large pile of wood into a grill in the neighborhood’s park.
“People were running through the park with machetes and cutting down branches,” Orlando said.
According to Orlando, someone had also cut down bamboo and was burning it in the grill.
“They had a huge bonfire, just to have a fire,” Orlando said.
Although residents say the large crowds of homeless people have subsided, and, as a result, the amount of trash has lessened, the situation with the grill has stoked concerns about garbage and crime.
The grill had become a safety concern for Orlando. She was worried about a fire spreading to the nearby pavilion or people getting sick from eating on a dirty grill grate.
In April, the Original Gillespie Park Neighborhood Association, one of two neighborhood associations in Gillepie Park, also wrote a letter to the city requesting that the grill be removed.
“I don’t think there is anything mean-spirited happening,” Orlando said. “We are just trying to get the park to be a better place to live around.”
Longtime neighborhood advocate Linda Holland said she didn’t want to see city officials remove the grill.
“Having the grill there for people to use is what public parks are all about,” Holland said. “We didn’t want to take it out. But a lot of people were concerned it wasn’t being used properly.”
According to Holland, the problem is that a small group had taken it over “for exclusive use,” and residents worried when they saw big flames so close to the pavilion and homeless people ripping branches off trees in the park.
The city’s Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection (PREP) Advisory Board heard the Original Gillespie Park Neighborhood Association’s request, and the board voted eight to three, May 16, to keep a newly-refurbished grill in the park and post a sign to notify people that only charcoal could be used in the grill. The city refurbished the grill last month.
PREP board member George Spector voted against the motion to install the sign.
“I don’t want the police in there determining what charcoal is legal or not,” Spector said. “Now what are they? The charcoal police.”
Todd Kucharski, public works general manager, said he is working with police officials and the city attorney to come up with exact wording for the sign that should be up within two months.
Kucharski said he is not a big fan of signs in parks. But it seemed clear that residents were concerned about the way the grill was being used.
If park users ignore the “charcoal only” sign, police will be able to enforce current city ordinances that prohibit defacing park property and regulate grill fires, Kucharski said.