The fruits of this year’s New Tampa-friendly budget are beginning to ripen, as meetings in June and July presented visions of the expansion of the New Tampa Recreation Center (NTRC), as well a sensory-friendly park, which will be the first of its kind in the Tampa Bay area.

Kevin Smith, senior vice president of FleischmanGarcia, addresses those gathered to hear about the expansion progress.

On July 11, the City of Tampa’s Parks & Recreation Department hosted a community meeting at the NTRC to present its plans for a 7,825-sq.-ft. expansion of the overcrowded Tampa Palms home of one of the Tampa Bay area’s most sought-after gymnastics and dance programs.

The popularity of the programs has resulted in thousands of Tampa and Pasco County residents being placed on waiting lists for years.

However, those waiting lists should dwindle a lot, thanks to $1.95 million allocated in this year’s budget to creating more room for more programs at NTRC — which could double — says Brad Suder, the superintendent of planning and design for Tampa Parks & Rec.

The expansion will add another multi-purpose room similar to the room currently used and there will be a new preschool gymnasium. Currently, the preschool program uses the main multi-purpose room.

Suder said the NTRC also will have a new training box, a 1,760-sq.-ft. rectangular room that can be used for a variety of training regimens. In addition, Suder said, there will be more windows so parents and family can watch the gymnastics and dance programs, as well as six new bathrooms.

One of the bathrooms will have an electromagnetic lock, so it can be open on the weekends for those using the outdoor areas when the NTRC is closed.

The expansion currently is in the design stage, and bids are expected to go out in October. Suder said he expects construction to begin in January, and for the expansion to be completed for the summer of 2019, or a year from now.

Public Shown Sensory Park Plans

At another public meeting held in June, more than two dozen residents and City of Tampa officials gathered with design architects at the NTRC to share ideas and their vision for a 5-acre sensory-friendly park that will be located behind the B.J.’s Wholesale Club on Commerce Palms Dr. in Tampa Palms.

David Conner, president of David Conner & Associates, showed some preliminary plans to area residents. Conner heads up the planning, landscape architecture and urban design firm that is being paid $49,400 (of the $90,000 budgeted by the City of Tampa) to begin designing the sensory-friendly park.

Attendees looked over a series of display boards (left) showing examples of other sensory parks in the U.S. — which are created for children and adults identified as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and are focused more on soothing and serene activities — with some additional ideas for the New Tampa park.

Those who are on the autism spectrum can take in information from their five senses just like everyone else, but cannot process it the same way and can become overwhelmed, which makes them unable to communicate and interact because they are overcome with anxiety.

Sensory-friendly parks focus on incorporating easier-to-process activities and sights. They are, however, still accessible to everyone.
Proponents of the park say as many as 40,000 children in and around the New Tampa area are likely to use the park each year.

The displays showed photographs of potential amenities that could be part of the park, like slides, swings and jungle gyms. Residents were asked to place “Like” and “Love” stickers (above) on the amenities they liked the most.

District 7 Tampa City Council member Luis Viera, whose older brother Juan has autism, spearheaded the effort to get the study and design of the sensory park funded in this year’s city budget.

Several residents voiced their excitement and approval during a short presentation by Conner and Brad Suder of Tampa’s Parks & Recreation Department.

“We live in Stafford Place (in Tampa Palms), like one block away from the park,” said Jeff Chacon, who said that he is eager to take his two-year old grandson, Finn, to the park. “I want to be able to walk down there with my grandson. We’re excited. It’s good for the neighborhood and good for the City of Tampa.”

Freelance writer Andy Warrener contributed to this report.

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