Where’s the park? Fort Myers promised to turn former Dunbar sludge site into park; nearly 5 years later, no park

Reporter: Andryanna Sheppard
Published: Updated:

From sorrowful sludge site to sanctuary, but where it is? The City of Fort Myers promised the decades old sludge site on South Street in the Dunbar area would become a park nearly five years ago. Years later, the community has lost faith in the city to keep its promise.

park, Current drone video of the former sludge site
Current drone video of the former sludge site, CREDIT: WINK News

All Jordon Brown has even seen across the street from his Dunbar home is water, tall grass and weeds.

“We used to play in there,” Brown remembered.

That was when he was a child. Now, as an adult, he learned his playground was a lime sludge dump site.

WINK News Consumer Reporter Andryanna Sheppard speaks with Jordon Brown about former sludge site
WINK News Consumer Reporter Andryanna Sheppard speaks with Jordon Brown about former sludge site, CREDIT: WINK News

According to the City of Fort Myers’ website dedicated to this issue, the city bought the lot in the 1960s for that very purpose. Fort Myers City Councilman Johnny Streets represents the Dunbar area. He said something like that wasn’t abnormal back then.

“They really didn’t care what they put out there as long as it was out there as opposed to down there which is McGregor,” Streets added. “It was to me environmental racism. Fort Myers wasn’t the only one.”

Sludge site neighborhood time lapse
Sludge site neighborhood time lapse, CREDIT: WINK News

As the neighborhood grew, the dumping continued until the city built a new water plant in 1993. The sludge, which samples showed over the years contained arsenic in excess of residential standards, stayed put.

WINK News has covered this issue for years and spoke to Dunbar resident Annette Miller in 2017.

“They felt it was okay for them to dump this stuff into our neighborhood and not even give us signs or warnings or signs saying don’t go in this area,” Miller said back then. “To think now that we could have been exposed to something serious and deadly is traumatizing really.”

2017 Drone view of portions of the Dunbar sludge site
2017 Drone view of portions of the Dunbar sludge site, CREDIT: WINK News

The World Health Organization says long-term exposure to arsenic can cause cancer and skin lesions. It’s also been linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The community only learned of the neighborhood’s arsenic-filled wasteland about 10 years later, when they also learned at least one well’s arsenic levels was really high.

The city agreed to clean it all up in 2018 and finished in early 2019. Shortly after, the community was promised the lot would come to life as City View Park. The renderings released back then show a playground, walkways and spots to sit and relax.

City View Park information and renderings

Where is the park?

“They put a park there, it would make the neighborhood better,” Brown said.

But more than four years later, where is it? There are no walkways, no playgrounds, no spots to sit and relax. Instead, the people in that community have only been locked out of it. The only changes in their view have been gates, locks and machine-made ponds.

“They ain’t getting it done,” Brown said in defeat. “And Centennial Park is redid. They redid that.”

In the more than four years since the Dunbar community was promised a park, Centennial Park less than three miles away in Downtown got a makeover. There’s a new playground, walkways, seating and an amphitheater, making many of the people in the Dunbar neighborhood feel pushed aside once again.

Drone view of the Centennial Park amphitheater
Drone view of the Centennial Park amphitheater, CREDIT: WINK News

“When they start, okay, yeah, I’ll put my trust again. Until then, no. It’s a waste of time to think about it,” Brown said with disappointment.

“There’s a process and that process contains money. That process contains funding. What we do is in increments. We already know that one area generates more money than the other one but they’re not being left behind,” Councilman Streets added.

Mayor Kevin Anderson said he understands why people in Dunbar would feel that way.

“Renovating a park versus constructing a park is very different,” Mayor Anderson clarified. “However, we’re going to start seeing some activity with City View Park.”

“You are absolutely right. The community is absolutely right. I stand with them. We have, somewhat, neglected the deprived and depressed areas,” Councilman Streets continued. “That’s why this council and the mayor has created a master plan for parks all over the City of Fort Myers.”

WINK News Consumer Reporter Andryanna Sheppard speaks with Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson about former sludge site and status of City View Park
WINK News Consumer Reporter Andryanna Sheppard speaks with Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson about former sludge site, CREDIT: WINK News

WINK News Consumer Reporter Andryanna Sheppard asked the Director of Parks and Recreation for a copy of that master plan. There isn’t one. Sheppard was told no plans, designs or renderings exist because they aren’t in that phase yet. But the hired design firm is set to present its findings to the Fort Myers City Council in April 2024.

“Do you know how long it might take for the community to be able to walk past those gates?” Sheppard asked Mayor Anderson.

“It’s really hard to say because there’s so many factors that come into play,” Mayor Anderson responded. “I really hate to try and pinpoint a date because that opening date is really going to be a moving target at this point.”

So people like Brown will keep staring at that now gated sludge site they used to play in as kids; the place they were promised would become a safe place for kids to play.

“Do you have faith that they will do something,” Sheppard asked Brown.

“No. No. It’s over with,” Brown replied shaking his head. “If it ain’t God, they ain’t doing nothing.”

Mayor Anderson said the City is below the standard for green space and parks for a city of Fort Myers’ size. A part of that master plan will be to ask residents to vote to pay and help cover the cost of more parks.

Background on sludge site

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