A Breath of Fresh Air

New Bonnet Springs Park to Bring Touch of Ag to Lakeland

by PAUL CATALA

photos provided by BONNET SPRINGS PARK

To the north is US 92, one of the busiest east-west roads in Polk County. To the east, west, and south, encroaching urbanization continues to cast more concrete into Lakeland.

But among the buildings, sidewalks, and exhaust fumes is the new Bonnet Springs Park — a 168-acre, privately funded and operated public park scheduled to open October 22. Located just outside of downtown Lakeland on the east shore of Lake Bonnet, the new park was designed to bring a bit of nature and agriculture to an otherwise urban area.

At the new site, an all-out effort is being coordinated to make sure visitors get a chance to see, learn about, and experience some of what Florida offers in its ecosystems and agriculture. The vision is for the park to be a place close to the city’s urban core “where art, recreation, fun, and tranquility intersect by design.”

According to Josh Henderson, Bonnet Springs Park’s chief executive officer, they are well on the way to accomplishing that goal 

Henderson — who served as vice president of operations and revenue for a privately funded public park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from 2017 to 2020 — was asked to work in developing Bonnet Springs by David Bunch, who learned of Henderson’s work through research on the Tulsa park. One of the impetuses for the new park, says Henderson, is to enhance Lakeland by creating a bridge from the northwest quadrant of the city to downtown and expand downtown’s recognition. 

“We feel through nature, culture, recreation, and education, the park can enhance the lives of all in the area who chose to visit. It’s helping make an already great city an even better place to live, work, and play,” says Henderson, 47. 

Part of reaching those goals involves bringing as much nature to the park as possible – basically bringing some country to the city. To help accomplish that, park staff and workers already have planted more than 3,700 trees on the property while saving as many other trees as possible during the construction process. Among them, staff and landscape crews planted a variety of native species, including hardwoods, citrus, and palm trees. Additionally, future plans call for park staff to develop shows and host exhibits based on horticulture.

“It’s sort of like Central Park is an icon in New York City; our goal is, in time, we want to be the equivalent of Central Park but for Central Florida,” Henderson says. 

Other aspects of the park that will highlight the area’s natural landscapes have also been incorporated into the design. 

The guest center is the first building visitors will see as they enter the park. It holds the Watson Clinic Gallery, which tells the history of the park property, the people who built and worked the railway there, and the general history of the surrounding areas and industries. There, Henderson says guides will discuss the impact of Publix supermarkets, citrus farming and cultivation, and aspects of the surrounding phosphate industry. 

The Welcome Center overlooks the AgAmerica Heritage Garden — a garden that pays homage to the railway and citrus industries with a linear style of foliage plantings. There are hardwood, flowering, and citrus trees, and a wooden play train structure for children. 

Henderson says as the history gallery focuses on people, the GiveWell Community Foundation Nature Center features the environment and what is being done by humans to help repair it. 

“We talk a lot about native animal species that can be seen in the park as well as the importance of pollinators. There is also a classroom that seats 40 for field trips,” he explains. “We have an outdoor classroom for field trips and have the ability to use the Harrell Family Greenhouse for educational programs as well.”

The opening of the park and its construction and operations were mostly accomplished through a gift to the city from Barney Barnett’s late wife, philanthropist Carol Jenkins Barnett, daughter of the late Publix Founder George Jenkins. She died in December. She and her husband were instrumental and involved in the beginnings of Bonnet Springs Park back in 2015 to 2016 when the idea was conceived; the project is almost seven years old, explains Henderson.

As for getting visitors onto park grounds and to experience what it offers, Henderson says there are areas and exhibits to interest everyone and it’s all free. The hope is visitors to the park can tailor each visit to the day’s needs and have a variety of experiences on each trip with recreational, educational, fitness, and arts/culture opportunities. 

The idea behind Bonnet Springs is that it’s not just a “Lakeland” park, it’s a Central Florida destination for individuals who want an enjoyable day out, schools on field trips, couples getting married, and even big corporate get-togethers and events.  

The park is also home to The Florida Children’s Museum, formerly known as Explorations V Museum in downtown Lakeland.

“There is a little something for almost everyone,” Henderson says. ”This park will be a repeatable experience and our goal is to make guests for life who advocate for the park and support our events.”

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