Orange Park on track to get new waterfront park

By Wesley LeBlanc
Posted 1/16/19

ORANGE PARK – Pat Meeks and her sister Sandy Vogel grew up on the northern shore of Doctors Lake where they climbed massive oak trees, swung on swings and went fishing.

In a few months, the …

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Orange Park on track to get new waterfront park

Posted

ORANGE PARK – Pat Meeks and her sister Sandy Vogel grew up on the northern shore of Doctors Lake where they climbed massive oak trees, swung on swings and went fishing.

In a few months, the community will get to see – and later enjoy – the 10-acre waterfront tract where they grew up as it becomes transformed into a public park.

“That was my mother and father’s dream for the land – to have it as a park one day. They had it since 1948 and our family had many, many years of enjoying the waterfront to ourselves and they wanted others to one day enjoy what we had enjoyed all those years, so it was a perfect choice,” she said.

Purchased for $1.96 million in state funds earmarked for mitigating flood waters or waters that could flood key areas, the St. Johns River Water Management District served as the sale transfer agent. Meeks said Sen. Rob Bradley(R-Fleming Island) and Rep. Travis Cummings(R-Orange Park) recommended that a portion of the state funds come to Clay County so that the county could purchase and mitigate some of the land that is more prone to flooding.

Currently, Clay County has possession of the waterfront park, but is projected to turn it over to the Town of Orange Park in May after Mayor Gary Meeks, Pat Meeks’ husband, is term-limited from public office.

Gary Meeks could not comment on the story and has stayed out of the sale to minimize any appearance of a conflict of interest.

Once Gary Meeks leaves office in May, the town and the county can begin the process that would finally see the land placed under ownership of Orange Park. Then, it can be developed into what Pat Meeks has always wanted it to be.

When Pat’s father passed away, she and her sister inherited the land and since that day, they’ve been waiting for the right way to make their mother and father’s dream come true. When Bradley and Cummings came knocking on her door, Meeks knew it was time.

“[Bradley and Cummings] came to us to talk about the land because they knew it was available,” Pat Meeks said. “They thought it would be great to help with the water control during storms but also to provide some use to the citizens of the area.”

When Meeks’ father purchased the land in 1948, it was a fish camp. Her family continued to use it as a fish camp, which is why Meeks has such fond memories of fishing with her family. Before her father purchased it, there was a long pier built by the Town of Orange Park where boats from all over would tie up. But, in 1944, a boat caught fire and destroyed most of the pier.

Today, the charred pier’s wooden pilings are still visible from the shore. Meeks wonders if the pier can be resurrected in some way. Regardless of what happens, she just hopes that when it gets back into the hands of Orange Park, they make her father’s dream come true.

“They raised our family there,” she said. “I have lived there all my life. I remember them sitting on the back porch, like they did, and they would say, ‘you know, wouldn’t it be great if everybody in the town could enjoy what we’re enjoying?’”

“And so that’s why I say it was just the perfect fit when [Bradley and Cummings] came to us to suggest turning it into a park,” Meeks said.

While there’s no guarantee, Meeks hopes that when Orange Park takes possession of the 10-acre plot of land, they allow her give input to shape what the park looks like.

“I’ll do my best to turn it into what dad always imagined,” Meeks said.

Chris Rodatz, chairman of the Clay County Bicycles, Blueways and Trails Committee, said that while he has not yet heard of this development, it does sound in line with what the county is trying to do to boost nature tourism.

“We’re promoting kayaking, canoeing and everything on the water from a tourism standpoint because Clay County has some of the best waterfront areas of any North Florida counties,” Rodatz said.

According to Rodatz, this push for a more intense focus on Clay County water recreation came about three years ago after he spoke to the county commissioners about doing more with the area. That’s how the committee came to be. Today, the committee focuses on making the county’s natural resources more accessible for tourists and citizens alike.

And while he does not have all of the details about the Meeks tract, Rodatz is excited about the potential the land holds and what it could do for the water recreation community in Clay County and tourists that wish to take advantage of it.

“The county has become really excited about all of this over the years because they realize that it brings people into the county, whether it is tourism or just people in town that want to kayak,” Rodatz said. “I’m sure they’re just as excited about what this might bring as I am.”

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