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NEWS

The price of popularity

New fees at a popular dog park threaten to sink the nonprofit that founded it

Photo: Jeff Gore, License: N/A, Created: 2010:10:21 20:02:20

Jeff Gore

Pay to Play: Tom Nowicki and his dog, Dexter, visit Fleet Peeples Park every morning


On a recent October morning, Tom Nowicki of Winter Park stands at the edge of the beach at Fleet Peeples Park on Lake Baldwin. The morning sunlight bathes the old oak trees in golden light and burns off the chill in the air. It’s a tranquil scene – one Nowicki takes in every morning, along with his two dogs, Dexter and Mookie.

“It’s a gorgeous park,” he says. “Sometimes we’re kind of stunned that we have it.”

It wasn’t always quite so picturesque here, though. Back in the 1990s, Nowicki recalls, the nearby community of Baldwin Park didn’t even exist. In its place was the Naval Training Center, which was widely believed to have been polluting the lake with chemical runoff until it closed in 1999. The park was sketchier then, a hangout for drug dealers, the homeless and people soliciting sex.

“A dog would go into the weeds and someone would come out with their pants around their ankles,” Nowicki says.

But that changed in 2001, when a collective of dog owners got together and formed the Friends of Fleet Peeples Park. With the City of Winter Park’s blessing, the nonprofit organization fenced in 13 acres of the park in 2003 and invested countless hours of volunteer time improving and cleaning up the area. They made the park one of the most popular dog parks in the city – in fact, in 2006 Dog Fancy magazine named it one of the best dog parks in the country. But on Oct. 11, the Winter Park City Commission made a move that Friends of Fleet Peeples Park say penalizes users for the park’s popularity and puts the future of the nonprofit organization itself in jeopardy.

The Winter Park commissioners voted 3-2 to impose an annual fee of $75 for the first dog a user wants to bring to the park; additional dogs would cost $50 apiece. Beginning Dec. 1, dogs entering the park will need to be wearing tags proving their registration. The city says it plans to put the revenue from the fee back into the park, in the form of maintenance and improvements. But Friends of Fleet Peeples says that over the years since the park has been established, it has been raising funds and volunteer labor to do just that, with minimal help from the city. The Friends raises money by charging members $25 per year to join the organization; membership is voluntary and nonmembers are welcome to use the park as well. The group is concerned that the mandatory fees will make it difficult to convince people to join.

“If fees are going to be charged, you don’t really think we’re going to sit out there with a table and ask for a membership, do you?” asks Carla Lubet, a Friends board member.

Friends secretary Sandy Womble is more blunt in her assessment of the situation: “We will shut down.”

When Friends of Fleet Peeples formed, both the city and its police were grateful the park was being used more constructively, but more than a decade later, feelings have changed. Commissioner Beth Dillaha (Commission Seat 2), who made the motion to impose the fees, says economic realities have outpaced the means of the group. “To rely on a group of volunteers to pay for the annual maintenance and upkeep of a park of that size is a tremendous amount to ask for,” she says. “It costs a lot more money now to maintain that park.”

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