It was during a recent family trip to New Zealand that Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham got the idea to liven up staid Joe Chillura Courthouse Square Park in downtown Tampa.
Higginbotham and his family happened upon a public park in the city of Christchurch during a public poetry reading. Higginbotham said he’s not a poetry fan, but he was impressed by the turnout and how the crowd seemed to enjoy the outdoors get-together.
“It always bothered me that Chillura Park was underutilized,” Higginbotham said. “I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have some kind of nice activity there.”
Higginbotham’s vision for a revitalized Chillura park isn’t fully formed, but his ideas include live entertainment at lunchtime, similar to the noon-time music concerts down the street at Lykes Gaslight Square Park, to putting in tables with chess and checkerboards.
Proud of his reputation as one of the commission’s budget hawks, Higginbotham said he thinks programming activities for the park can be done inexpensively.
“It could be a kids’ rock band,” he said. “There’s no reason to not enhance the experience in that park.”
Higginbotham enlisted the help of Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership. Burdick said she hopes to present the commissioner with some options in about two weeks.
Whatever events are scheduled for the park, Burdick said they will be “free and community oriented.”
The idea is to get people out of their offices at lunchtime, she said, or to draw residents who rarely savor the downtown experience.
“The idea is to give it some animation and making it a destination rather than a place to just walk through or even avoid,” Burdick said.
The park, bordered by Kennedy Boulevard and Morgan, Pierce and Madison streets, was dedicated by county commissioners in January 2000 and named after Joe Chillura, who served on the commission from 1990-98.
Memorials to fallen service members make the park a popular site for patriotic events. A gazebo there, topped by a replica of the 1892 county courthouse dome, is sometimes used by bands and distinguished speakers.
Native Florida live oaks and cabbage palms provide shade and beauty for visitors who can read a book or walk the one-tenth mile park perimeter.
Chillura said he “led the charge” to buy the park after he heard a rumor that McDonald’s wanted to open a restaurant there, across the street from the Frederick B. Karl County Center.
Chillura felt a hamburger restaurant across from the seat of county government was “inappropriate.”
A year after Chillura left the commission, then-Commissioner Jim Norman pushed to have the park named after his former colleague.
Chillura said he is “always receptive to making the park more useful.”
“But I think they need to call in the original architect so whatever they do is integrated into the existing park,” said Chillura, who is an architect.
“There’s nothing worse than a bunch of laymen adding and subtracting to what I think was a good design.”