Open-Air ATVentures

Open-Air ATVentures

Bone Valley ATV Park Uses Old Phosphate Mining Land to Make Way for Families, Fun

by TIM CRAIG
photo by JEREMY MAREADY/POLK COUNTY GOVERNMENT

On 200 acres in Mulberry, there is a tract of land that is a testament to the feats that can be forged when the county and community collaborate. On quiet days, you can hear the wind rustling through trees and over clay hills. On a busy day, you can hear ATVs zipping between the trees amid whoops of delight.

Bone Valley ATV Park opened in 2015 on former phosphate land bought from Mosaic, which mined it and then reclaimed it back to readiness for public use. The county-owned and operated park in Mulberry sports 15 trails, hill climbs and free riding areas. The park even boasts an open play area and picnic areas. The trails play to the natural terrain left behind from the phosphate mining, adding exciting and challenging elements for riders.

It was about 95 percent complete when it opened, says Polk County Parks Manager Derek Harpe, but it was close enough to be a big draw.

Harpe and fellow Park Manager Mike Callender should know. They have been around since Bone Valley was just an idea more than 10 years prior to its opening. They were there for the ad hoc meetings and the special committees; there for the grant exemptions and the public-private cooperation that made the park happen; and they are still there overseeing an additional 300-acre expansion currently in the works.

The pair knew they heard a good idea when then-County Commissioner Randy Wilkinson floated it to the rest of the Commission: The county should do something for the large contingent of all-terrain riders who were finding accessible land shrinking every year.

“We knew there was a large ATV community in the county that was underserved,” says Harpe, a Polk County native and ATV rider himself. “It was getting harder to find a place to ride.” 

“I think that’s the beauty of this complex. It gives somebody a place to ride where ATVs are the primary focus. It’s not an orange grove, it’s not a pasture, it’s an ATV park,” Harpe explains.

Liability costs and development had made it difficult for riders to use privately owned land, he says. The closest public ATV park is Croom Park in Hernando County, nearly 90 minutes away.

A look at ATV registrations showed there was a large, underserved population, says Callender.

“If you break up the state into different regions — South, Central, Panhandle, and Northern — 52 percent of all ATV registrations in the state are in the central part,” says Callendar. “That showed that there was a need, and the state was very proactive in recognizing it.”

With Polk County on board, committees were formed to see whether the idea was possible and where to put it. The process took longer than expected, particularly because the committees were put on hiatus when a private company started exploring the possibility of opening an ATV park, Callender says. When the private company backed away from the idea, the committees reactivated and chose the Mosaic-owned property in Mulberry for the project. Part of the deal included an option for another purchase in the future.

“Mosaic really stepped up,” says Callender. “Knowing what the land was going to be used for, they offered it at a really good price.” 

“This was a fun project to collaborate on,” says Callie Neslund, Communications Director for Mosaic Co. “The unique features from past phosphate mining activity make it ideal for thrill seekers. The County Parks & Rec staff did a phenomenal job soliciting public input on the project and repurposing the terrain.” 

Finding the land was one thing. Finding a way to pay for it was another. In order to lower the tax burden on the local public, the parks department was charged to look at grants to cover as much of the cost as possible, says Harpe.

The department approached the state for a T. Mark Schmidt Grant. Yet there was one problem: The grant was not to be used for purchasing property, says Callender. The department approached the state to seek an exception, arguing that the land price was so low, it would be enough for the property. The state granted the exception and awarded a grant for the purchase of the property. The county also received a Recreation and Trails Program Grant that went toward developing the site and getting it ready to open.

When it opened in 2015, it was obvious that not only was there a need for this park, there was a need to grow. The first growth was the addition of a Jason Baker-designed track. Baker, a Bartow native who owns Dream Traxx, has designed ATV and side-by-side tracks for Red Bull and others around the country.

There is a plan for another Baker track on a new 335-acre addition across the street. The new site, also purchased from Mosaic in 2017, is scheduled to include a motorcycle-only track, more trails, additional tracks as well as a campground. It will transform the park from a single-day trip to a multiday destination, says Harpe.

“Typically when the county builds a park, there is a user group ready for it,” he says. “When we opened this, we approached it differently — we started marketing this as an attraction, which has been a little different for us.”

That approach has worked, according to Bill Glisson, owner of G5 Feed and Outdoor in Plant City. Glisson has been a partner of the park since its opening. He has seen firsthand how his customers seek the park out and what they say about it. 

“The park is a perfect place, innovative in its use of reclaimed land,” says Glisson, “with a vision and concept that has really resonated with the public.”

It has been this type of cooperation — between the commissioners and the parks department, between the county and the state, and between the private and public sector — that has made Bone Valley ATV Park the destination it has already become, says Callender.

“I have to tell you, people all along the way have been so proactive,” he says. “From the county commission recognizing the need of a diversified public, the state in working with us in new ways to make sure it happened, and Mosaic understanding and being supportive of the project. These are the things that have made this park unique.”

The park doesn’t cater to any one age group or demographic. “We want everybody out there,” Harpe says. “And we’ve had everybody out there from 5- and 6-year-olds learning in the play areas to the 70-year-olds riding their side-by sides and having a blast. You can come out, back your truck up, put your trailer there, unload, put your tent up, bring your grill out and cooler and sit there and barbecue with the family. We want you to be there for the day.”