This rendering depicts the pedestrian-friendly environment Parkside could someday become.
COURTESY PHOTO A HURRICANE EIGHT YEARS AGO, FOLLOWED by the great recession, left one of Charlotte County’s oldest neighborhoods — already teetering on the brink of decrepitude — in sorry shape.
Until recently, it’s been known as the Medical District, since two of the county’s three major hospitals are located in the downtown-like area. One, Peace River Regional Medical Center, recently constructed a new cardiac facility.
Beyond that core are about 4,200 residents. Some two-thirds are children, teens or young adults, with about onethird seniors congregating mostly in the condos near a central business zone.
Most of the homes here are modest cement-block specials, built in the 1950s and ’60s to appeal to retirees. They’re painted in avocado, salmon and sand. They line canals and streets that are filled with teenagers on bicycles this summer.
Top: Laura Lewis and Marian Grant confer about their neighborhood. Above: Chad and Chantelle McGowan play at Lake Betty Park.
EVAN WILLIAMS / FLORIDA WEEKLY Some of the colors have faded and neighborhoods are dotted with boarded up, overgrown properties. Others are groomed with love and attention.
“I think this block here all the way down is clean and neat,” said resident Laura Lewis, who was outside sprucing up her yard in what she calls her magic apron on a hot afternoon last week. She turned to her friend and neighbor, Marian Grant and asked, “Don’t you think so?”
“I think so, yeah,” Mrs. Grant replied.
These women are not the only ones making changes.
The district was recently given a new, more poetic name: Parkside, and along with that, an initial injection of about $9 million from the county, a loan to Parkside’s taxpayers. That’s part of a larger plan Charlotte County commissioners approved last summer that is estimated to cost $35 million over 20 years.
Deep in the heart of Charlotte
The county says there are close to 800 businesses in the 1,100-square-foot triangular shaped area set off U.S. 41, which is geographically in the center of Port Charlotte.
The nonprofit citizens group TEAM Port Charlotte formed in 2010 and began the push to clean up crime in the area and, with the county’s help, give the area a new urban look and feel.
Some improvements, including a grand entrance on Harbor Boulevard, and multiuse paths along Elkcam and Harbor Boulevards, are slated to be finished early in 2013. That’s the beginning of a planned six miles of trails and bridges over canals linking up with the downtown area.
Left: Jeff Pouk manages the Winn-Dixie. Below: Steven Rizzo is a 25-year-old actor and band promotor.
EVAN WILLIAMS / FLORIDA WEEKLY As of yet, unfunded plans for Parkside include added features to McGuire and Lake Betty parks, such as splash fountains and a climbing wall, as well as a handful of separate “pocket parks” scattered through the neighborhoods.
Those plans in particular would be good news for Chad McGowan and his 2-year-old, Chantelle McGowan, who played at the small Lake Betty Park in north Parkside last week on an overcast day that threatened rain.
“I go to a lot of parks,” Mr. McGowan, the father of seven children, said. Residents say crime increased in Parkside since the middle of the decade, but has been getting better. The Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office didn’t have records comparing Parkside’s criminal history in past years by press time. State records show violent crime in Charlotte County as a whole (including murder, forced sex, robbery and aggravated assault) jumped dramatically starting in 2004 to its highest levels since at least 1995. In 1999 there were 212 violent crimes committed; in 2006, there were 739. Since then it has steadily decreased to just below 400 violent crimes in 2011.
“The area around the Parkside area is pretty much the center, the heart of Charlotte County,” said Jeff Pouk, who grew up in Parkside and is the store manager of the Winn-Dixie here. Historically, he adds, “It’s the oldest area of the county, the most worn down, the least invested in.”
A central public spot there, McGuire Park, has been notorious for attracting drug dealers and unsavory types.
Scary-looking people are fewer and farther between nowadays at McGuire Park, said Brandon Eldridge, 17. He and some friends walked there last Tuesday afternoon to play basketball and hung out on the swing sets.
Artists renderings capture what the future may hold for the Parkside Medical District.
COURTESY PHOTO “From what we heard, there used to be drug deals, fights,” he said.
There are still some odd ducks, literally and figuratively, hanging around the park.
“We like to watch who comes over here,” said Jacob Ponce, 16. “There are some creepy people.”
A girl, one of the boy’s friends or maybe a protective sister, came up to find out about the reporter they were talking to.
“You’re not a creep, are you?” she asked amiably.
No, not really.
A vision for Parkside
Jim Fendrick, a county planner in the Growth Management department, drew up the Parkside Master Plan after holding public meetings. He envisions the district as a new urbanist destination, a “walkable” community where it would be just as convenient — and maybe even pleasurable — not to use a car. And there would be trees, lots and lots of trees.
The idea then is people and businesses will be attracted here.
“Everyone’s making an economic decision,” said planner Mr. Fendrick. “Do I stay here and reinvest? It is a safe place, an attractive place? Do I want to continue to live here and work? If a lot of people don’t answer yes, the place starts to deteriorate.”
A newly formed Parkside Business Association led by Dennis Mitrano, who is also head of DayStar Communications, is part of the effort.
“The long-term goals is to make it a destination again for Charlotte County, because it used to be,” Mr. Mitrano said.
Parkside “really has the potential to do the same thing the city of Punta Gorda did,” said Charlotte Commissioner Bob Starr. “You have a tremendous tax base to start in that district.”
The improvements would be paid for by Parkside taxpayers through a mechanism called tax increment financing. The county designated the area a Community Redevelopment Area, and in January set aside the $9 million of the estimated $35 million in improvements.
Meanwhile, TEAM Port Charlotte volunteers formed a partnership with the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office and citizens to create organized neighborhood watches.
The Promenade Mall, the main retail destination of Parkside, has long since been out-competed by Port Charlotte Town Center mall just north of it since 1989. That is a top reason cited for decline in the area.
But following the County’s allocation of funds, the Promenade’s anchor tenant, a Winn-Dixie supermarket, has drawn attention by making $6.7 million in renovations, including an updated produce market, deli and free Wi-Fi.
“It’s Whole Foodsish,” raves TEAM Port Charlotte president Susan Swanson, a Parkside resident and community activist.
The Winn-Dixie has for many years drawn and employed old friends and neighbors, said Joan Winslett.
“It’s still the same small place,” she said of Parkside. “You can’t walk around without seeing someone you know.”
Her son grew up here. Now a high school senior, he was born at Peace River Regional Hospital, within easy walking distance of the store.
Dining and night life
Parkside’s entertainment and dining options include the Cultural Center of Charlotte County. Though it might look and feel like a rest home, inside there’s a cafeteria serving perfectly edible nofrills meals — plus a thrift shop, a wellappointed theater and programs offering an abundance of learning and cultural opportunities.
Also in the downtown area is Bowland, a bowling alley with a bar. Last Tuesday afternoon, a cheerful group of seniors knocked down pins. A few lanes over, two young children bowled while their heatwilted parents looked on from their seats.
There isn’t much in the way of nightlife. Steven Rizzo was there last week looking for a place that Tantric, the band he helps promote, could rock out. But so far he had found no venues in Parkside that could support such an act, which he described as like the band “Creed, with more of a kick.”
The only option for Tantric might be a great old black hole of a dive bar on U.S. 41 called Charlie’s Pub and Billiards, perhaps the sole nightlife destination in the district. It’s open every day until 2 a.m.
“My impression was that (downtown Parkside is) just a hub for medical,” said Mr. Rizzo, a lean 25-year-old actor who retains a hint of his East Coast accent. “There weren’t any restaurants. The neighborhoods were kind of rundown.”
He points beyond the Winn-Dixie toward south Parkside. “Everybody looks like they’re coming out of a Motorhead concert,” he said, referring to the heavy metal band. “This area feels run down like parts of Brooklyn,” where he grew up.
Maybe one day Tantric will have a gig in Parkside at a proposed “community square” and concert stage in an area currently filled part with a parking lot and part with overgrown brush behind the Winn-Dixie. That could be years away.
“Wouldn’t that be cool on Saturday night?” county planner Mr. Fendrick muses. “I mean, I like to go hip-hop dancing, so it would be great to have a hip-hop group. And the seniors would love a big band, I’m sure.”
Charlie’s Pub - a place for friends
The regulars at Charlie’s Pub party on through good times and bad, said Amber, a young bartender with long black hair who has worked here for four years. Light poured in from the front windows into the old space, complete with fantastical, somewhat lurid murals. There is a digital jukebox, a dartboard and golf arcade games.
“The crowd has changed a lot,” Amber said. “It used to be a lot rougher. Now it’s like the ‘Cheers’ of Port Charlotte. My roommate, everybody comes here. We all hang out. It’s a good time.”
She wasn’t sure how long the bar had been there, but a long time. “My mom actually worked here about 15 years ago,” she said, “so I know it’s been here at least that long.”
Among Amber’s customers were three guys who were drinking Budweiser early one Tuesday evening after a day of laying tile.
“It’s like a melting pot,” one of the men, James Belcher, said about Parkside. “Every ethnic group you can think of. You’ve got Amish people blazing all around this place.”
(At a glance, Florida Weekly found no evidence of the Amish in the neighborhood, although Mr. Belcher’s “melting pot” description looked more accurate.)
With Mr. Belcher were Kent McCarthy and his son, Josh, both originally from near Traverse City, Mich.
“That’s God’s country,” Mr. McCarthy said. “But this is, too.” ¦
TEAM Port Charlotte holds regular meetings every third Tuesday of the month at 5:30 p.m. at the Cultural Center of Charlotte County at 2280 Aaron Street, Port Charlotte.
There will be public meetings at the Cultural Center of Charlotte County moderated by county planner Jim Fendrick from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 19 and Thursday, Aug. 2.
The July 19 meeting will cover crime, property maintenance and social needs in Parkside.
The Aug. 2 meeting will address solutions for those issues.
Visit www.teamportcharlotte.com for more information.