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One of the biggest changes outlined at a recent planning session for Bartow's master plan formulation was the merging and complete redesign of Mary Holland and Mosaic parks.

Topping the list at a recent virtual session, chief GAI planner Andy McCown told an online meeting audience of both elected officials and residents that the city would benefit by merging its two main parks. Doing this, he explained, would create a seamless recreation and activity center that is easily accessible by foot, bike or car.

The ongoing planning process by GAI Consultants is entering its final phases, where planners show the community what it sees as the city's future development plans.

McCown suggested the city consider relocating its iconic bandshell to the south of the park and move its beleaguered soccer fields to Mosaic Park. The plan would also include a bridge over the lake and sites for the construction of residential buildings — either townhomes or apartments.

The park-meld idea was just one such idea offered to put Bartow's “best face” forward. Others included revitalizing the downtown center, reinvesting in infrastructure, connecting all the parks via walkways and trails, and diversifying the city's housing stock.

McCown and his team of planners also suggested the city seek ways to expand its retail offerings to better serve neighborhoods with small grocery shops or cafes.

“Most of those are located in north Bartow, so people have to drive to get groceries or obtain services from other commercial outlets,” he said.

It was further suggested that east Bartow target that type of infill which would increase the area's walkability and spur further neighborhood cohesiveness. McCown cited the U.S. 17 corridor, where the highway divides the community.

“A park-like setting would give residents, visitors and pedestrians access to small businesses like cafes, coffee shops, barber shops and the like,” he added.

Also on the GAI list of things the city may do in the future was create a network of sidewalks, trails and pathways that would encourage community. Additionally, the old gas station located on Main Street could be converted into an activity center, with the side streets closed to vehicle traffic to create a mini-center for outdoor gatherings, the planners suggested.

Another idea mentioned that drew support from City Commissioner Steve Githens was converting the “old cement plant” located on East Main Street into a mini-park. The planners said it could be a dual-purpose facility by creating a mini-lake to handle stormwater runoff from the surrounding area and provide a park to serve that sector of the community. McCown also suggested that, since it involved stormwater runoff, there was a possibility such a facility could be built with Southwest Florida Water Management District grant funds.

Another suggestion from the planners includes the construction of numerous apartment or townhouse developments on a citywide basis. Earlier sessions determined that sufficient housing was a continuing issue, and multi-family buildings could provide moderately priced housing which they said is lacking in the county seat.

The planners said that the city's Leisure Services Director Catherine Vorrasi had tentatively agreed with the proposed parks merger theory. Vorrasi is also developing an independent Leisure Services master plan that is unrelated to the GAI plan. It was not immediately known if her plans include the changes suggested at the recent GAI session.

The old cigar factory, long a bane to the city commission, which has been unable to find a developer interested in restoring the crumbling facility, could also become a community hub.

“We don't necessarily have to use the building, but the areas surrounding it would be ideal for multi-family development — either apartments or townhomes,” McCown explained.

“The key to this is putting residential development on both sides of the commercial downtown,” added GAI real estate specialist Tom Kohler. “It would anchor both sides of the downtown and help support those businesses.”

Those ideas and more, including possible funding scenarios for some suggestions that fall under the city commission's purview, will be presented to the city when the master plan is complete.

McCown told the virtual audience and participants that additional public participation would be held as the plan nears its finalization. No timeframe for the plan's completion was mentioned, since much has been delayed due to pandemic-related complications.