One new park opening, another park closing for a year for upgrade

Rowell's Waterfront Park has been a long time coming.
Rowell's Waterfront Park has been a long time coming.

Two major park projects backed by Monroe County celebrate milestones in the closing weeks of May.

At noon today, a groundbreaking for Bernstein Park renovations costing nearly $8 million takes place at the 11.6-acre site on Stock Island's Fifth Street.

"Bernstein Park will become one of the finest recreational facilities in the Lower Keys," Monroe County Commissioner Danny Kolhage said in a statement, "and a wonderful, safe place for kids to play."

In Key Largo, county officials plan to open the gates of Rowell's Waterfront Park -- formerly known as Rowell's Marina -- on May 27, in time for Memorial Day weekend.

The county purchased the eight-acre property on Florida Bay at mile marker 104.5 from a developer in January 2014 for $5 million to preserve a well-used events field and public waterfront.

While the county-owned Rowell's property has hosted several community festivals and served as a base for the crew filming the "Bloodline" Netflix series, no regular openings were held.

Facilities at Rowell's remain limited but include a paddle-sports launch, picnic tables, benches and access to swim in bay waters. There are no lifeguards. Dogs on leashes are allowed.

"This is exactly what we promised on the day we purchased Rowell’s property," County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said.

Rowell's will remain open daily from 7:30 a.m. to sunset.

Plans for future facilities and a scenic overlook are still in the developmental phase. "It's going to belong to the people forever," Murphy said.

"We didn't want to delay people enjoying the park any longer," county Project Management and Facilities Director Doug Sposito said.

"We have been preparing the park for limited water access and other uses that don't require construction," Sposito said. "Opening it now will give people a chance to use the park and have better ideas on what else they would like."

Neighboring property owners generally endorsed the Rowell's purchase but were nearly unanimous in opposing the installation of a boat ramp. Since a boat ramp would generate more vehicle traffic and require a large parking area, commissioners agreed to not include a ramp in park plans.

The Bernstein Park renovations will center on raising a six-acre section by two feet to limit flooding that frequently closed the sports fields. "That's a lot of fill," Sposito said of the 20,000 cubic yards of new dirt.

Designs call for two soccer fields, a basketball court, exercise trail, playground and updated field lights. Construction at the Stock Island park is expected to force a year-long closure until summer 2017.

A new community center will feature two open rooms available for public events and meetings.

"This is the project that everybody wanted," Kolhage said in April.

Bernstein Park provides recreation and youth-league space "for the largest concentration of children in the entire Keys," County Administrator Roman Gastesi said Monday.

"It's going to be a first-rate facility," Gastesi said. "These kinds of jobs sometimes take a long time to see the fruits of our labor so it's very good to see things coming together."