Browns pledge $15 million to improve Daytona Beach’s Riverfront Park

At Wednesday night’s City Commission meeting, Cici and Hyatt Brown revealed that they’re leading a multi-million dollar effort to completely recreate Riverfront Park from Orange Avenue up to the Main Street Bridge.

DAYTONA BEACH — In 1894, a commercial printing tycoon from New York City built an opulent Beach Street mansion overlooking the Halifax River. He also had a lighted promenade put in along the waterway and constructed a huge waterfront casino he donated to the city in 1914.

Charles Burgoyne’s casino building sat on sandy material culled from river dredging, land that became the first piece of what is now Riverfront Park.

In the 1940s, a small child playing in the park was fascinated by its beauty. That blue-eyed boy was J. Hyatt Brown, who grew up to lead one of the world’s largest insurance brokers, Brown & Brown, Inc.

Seventy years later, Brown and his wife, Cici, are now hoping to reverse the park’s downward slide and restore it to the first-class public space it once was. At Wednesday night’s City Commission meeting, they revealed that they’re leading an ambitious effort to completely overhaul Riverfront Park from Orange Avenue up to the Main Street Bridge. And they’re offering $15 million of their own money to make it happen.

Beyond renovating the park itself, they also want to create a place that again brings people downtown.

“When I was a little boy, I went with my mother and father down to Beach Street and they would shop and I would go over into the park,” Brown, now 81, said last week with a laugh as the childhood memory came back. “They had all this beautiful landscaping, and there was water running, and there were little bridges, and it was just great.”

Few people describe Riverfront Park that way now, nor have they for many years. Muck and stench have taken over what were once crystal clear artesian wells. An old rose bed is ailing. Vagrants are usually scattered around, sleeping under shade trees and smoking in the breezeway of the restroom building.

“It’s a diamond in the rough and we’re going to polish it,” Hyatt Brown told city commissioners Wednesday night.

Brown showed commissioners a drawing with an almost ethereal quality to it that depicted the park in the 1930s, with lush vegetation and a tranquil rock-lined lagoon. Cici Brown remembers Riverfront Park still being a beautiful oasis when she moved to Daytona Beach in the mid-1960s. She wants to bring back that magnificence.

“I’m seeing the park decline, which is quite upsetting to me,” she said in an interview last week. “The Council of Garden Clubs used to work and help with the gardens, and they were lovely.”

If city commissioners give their blessing to the Browns’ plan to take the city-owned park to a new level, there will be a rainbow of flowers sprinkled throughout the grassy expanse. They’ll plant about 50 new trees large enough to provide much-needed shade, trees that could be 30 feet tall and ring up a $1 million bill. A splash park will be added for children. They’ll widen the Sweetheart Trail — named after Burgoyne’s 75-foot yacht — by several feet and use a material that will soften the blow on runners’ knees and hips. They’ll also add dozens of light poles to improve safety in the park.

They’re also thinking about adding new restroom buildings and a small office, possibly with designs that could play off the architecture of Burgoyne’s castle-like casino that stood on the corner of Beach Street and Orange Avenue until it burned down in 1937. Other iconic downtown structures such as the 86-year-old Kress building could also be the inspiration for design. There would be new benches, and historical bronze plaques and busts to commemorate the city’s early pioneers and buildings important to Daytona Beach.

“The historical thing could be great fun I think,” Cici Brown said. “There’s opportunities for all kinds of things.”

City Commissioner Rob Gilliland liked everything he heard.

“I love the concept and tying it back to 100 years ago,” Gilliland told the Browns. “I can’t thank you enough for making this kind of investment. I’m really just in awe of your generosity.”

Several Beach Street business owners, who’ve been frustrated for decades with the struggles of downtown, echoed Gilliland’s excitement.

“I am ecstatic over what the Browns are proposing,” said Tammy Kozinski, owner of Sweet Marlays’ Coffee Shop. “Let’s make downtown what it’s supposed to be.”

Because Riverfront Park is city-owned and in a redevelopment area, a request for proposals will have to go out to see if anyone else wants to pitch renovation ideas for the waterfront land. But odds are that during the 30-day advertising period there won’t be any takers with a plan as detailed and well-financed as the Browns’ proposition, which comes with their $15 million gift to pay for the vast array of improvements.

Commissioners will make their choice in a month or two. If the Browns’ proposal goes forward, their park project will become just the latest major contribution they’ve made to the area over the past couple of years.

They planned and financed the 3-year-old Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art on Nova Road that’s packed with 2,600 oil and watercolor paintings they donated. A year ago, Hyatt Brown announced his plans for a new $60 million Brown & Brown corporate headquarters building overlooking the Halifax River on Beach Street, slated to open in late 2020. And in April they made an $18 million contribution to Stetson University in DeLand.

“It just shows their willingness to invest in this community and be concerned about the future of it,” said former Mayor Glenn Ritchey, who will donate his time to the Brown’s park project if it moves forward.

‘Do it right’

The Browns and a St. Augustine architect with Reynolds Smith & Hill Landscape Architects gave an overview of their ideas at Wednesday night’s City Commission meeting. The proposal is still conceptual, so for now there is no detailed plan of exactly what would go where, how much everything would cost and when the renovations would be complete. The Browns estimate renovation work could start in May next year and be complete in April 2020.

They say they’ve been getting ideas for the park from local residents and business owners for months, and they’re going to keep listening.

Their proposal includes creating a foundation that would lease the park in the decades ahead. The nonprofit Brown Riverfront Park Foundation would operate and maintain the park, but the city would retain ownership, and the park would remain completely open to the public. All capital improvements — new restrooms, a splash park, benches — would be deeded to the city by the foundation.

Their proposed lease agreement calls for the city to pay the foundation an unspecified amount each year to help with maintenance and operations. The foundation has already presented a lease contract to the city, but several things remain to be negotiated.

The Browns say the foundation would have two goals: Revamp the park, then keep it in pristine condition. They would even replace the flowers every six months to keep everything fresh.

Maintenance “is numero uno on my list,” Cici Brown said last week. “Don’t spend this money and let it sink in the doldrums like this one has.”

The Browns have already thought through all the challenges, including repairs needed on the collapsing river wall near the Orange Avenue bridge and the new landscaping’s water needs, which would be met with recycled water.

“The whole thing has got to be a wow,” said Hyatt Brown, who in 2009 retired as Brown & Brown’s CEO and is now chairman of the board. “If we’re going to do it, we need to do it right.”

The Browns would be members of the foundation’s board of trustees, as would Ritchey, former city Community and Economic Development Director Emory Counts and City Commissioner Kelly White. White, who lives and works downtown, would not join the foundation until her City Commission term ends in November.

They intend for the foundation to operate in perpetuity with others eventually running it to ensure the park doesn’t plummet into disrepair again in the future.

White and her husband, urban redeveloper Jack White, own several Beach Street buildings and have built new housing downtown. They are longtime believers in what downtown Daytona Beach is capable of becoming. Kelly White was stunned when the Browns shared their plans with her a few months ago.

“When they told me, I about fell out of my seat,” she said last week. “Just the new (Brown & Brown) headquarters was enough to make me have hope. I have no greater love than that public space. I yearn for it to be a place the public comes to.”

Kelly White has been all over the United States looking at parks and gathering information as part of her own efforts to improve Riverfront Park.

If the Browns’ plan goes forward, they say the park would be fenced off while improvements are made. The Daytona Beach Regional Library, Jackie Robinson Ballpark and everything else on City Island will not be part of the project, so public access wouldn’t be blocked in those areas. The 7-acre Manatee Island also isn’t included in the Browns’ initial plan, but it could be upgraded in a future project, they said.

Their area of focus would be the 23 acres of grassy land just east of Beach Street.

Although the Browns have pledged to give $15 million toward the downtown park overhaul, the project could wind up with a larger price tag in the end and need the help of other generous donors. Contributors could have a loved one’s name inscribed on a plaque attached to a tree, or donate for naming rights on some other park improvement.

The Browns say they’re taking on the extensive renovation to give back to the town where the insurance company Brown’s father founded with a cousin in 1939 got its start in a cramped office near Beach Street.

“It’s a reinvestment in the community,” Hyatt Brown said, adding that the park still “takes me back to my childhood.”

So far, the Browns have invested three years in their Riverfront Park venture. They’ve checked out parks across Florida and even in Europe while they were traveling there, and they’ve come to regard Cascades Park in Tallahassee as an ideal public space that they hope to emulate.

The 24-acre Cascades Park, located along a stream, underwent an overhaul of its own in the past decade and re-opened in 2014 with an amphitheater, a fountain with colored lights paid for by local companies, ponds, boulder climbing and an outdoor classroom area. The Cascades Park overhaul cost $31 million, but there were a lot of environmental problems that had to be remedied. An electric generation plant there also was torn down, but part of it was salvaged for a unique restaurant. Now the city of Tallahassee spends $900,000 per year maintaining the park.

To help them better understand renovated parks, the Browns took their foundation members to Cascades Park a few weeks ago. The foundation members also checked out Curtis Hickson Waterfront Park in Tampa and Straub Park in St. Petersburg, but they found both inferior to Cascades Park. The Browns, who lived in Tallahassee in the 1970s when Hyatt Brown was a state legislator and then state speaker of the House, said Cascades is “gorgeous” and “the best kept park we’ve ever seen.”

“Maybe we’ll be able to mirror that,” Hyatt Brown said. “It is pristine. Everything is.”

Cici Brown added that “there are people around. It is clean. It is neat. Everything is pedicured and manicured.”

They toured the park with a city official there, and made a point to ask him about the homeless. The official said the homeless had been embedded in the park, but a shelter built there after the park overhaul drew away many of those with no place to go. Hyatt Brown said just having more people using the park helped, too, as did having two guards walk around 24-7 for two years after it reopened.

“The homeless problem is gone,” he said.

Because the Browns’ foundation is private, if it leased the park it could have rules different than the city for issues such as vagrancy and loitering, Hyatt Brown said. He noted that the foundation would want 24-hour security and would have automatic electronic locking on bathrooms to keep vagrants out at night.

‘A world-class park’

City officials are well aware of the struggles of Riverfront Park and a few other city parks that have become magnets for vagrants. They recently adopted new park rules that promise to reduce problems often connected to homeless people. At Wednesday’s meeting, they also discussed a proposed park trespass warning ordinance as well as a measure aimed at getting the glut of panhandlers out of the public places where they’ve taken root.

Commissioners also took up a measure Wednesday night that’s focused on several changes along Beach Street between Orange Avenue and Bay Street that include widening the sidewalk west of Beach Street, reducing traffic lanes from four to two, making parking adjustments, adding landscaping, improving lighting, installing drainage outfall back flow prevention and upgrading utilities.

The downtown area is suddenly poised for new development. Consolidated-Tomoka Land Co. is building 265 apartments on the First Baptist Church property. Volusia County officials are looking at consolidating court services and a few other county offices in two new buildings just west of Beach Street, which could bring an additional 450 new employees downtown in five years.

A developer has also looked at building a hotel, apartments, shops and restaurants around Jackie Robinson Ballpark. All the new development could spur even more improvements since it would be located in the Downtown Community Redevelopment Area, where property taxes generated from increased value are poured back into the area for more upgrades.

After seeing what the Browns did with their art museum, Mayor Derrick Henry expects they would bring that same superior quality to the park.

“They would make it a world-class park,” Henry said. “It’ll have a tremendous impact on the quality of life.”

Henry said the Browns could make the park “phenomenal” and draw the many people downtown that businesses need to thrive.

“I can’t overstate my happiness,” the mayor said.

The Whites hope the park, which started its decline in the 1970s, can become a place they and their preschool-age triplet daughters will enjoy for many years to come. They see the Browns carrying on Burgoyne’s legacy of creating a wonderful place where the community can gather.

“We’re definitely very, very excited,” Kelly White said. “It’s my backyard. We’re there every day. This is our largest waterfront area in the city so it should be outstanding. This will be our Central Park.”

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