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Savannas Recreation Area bike trail

The new Savannas Recreation Area bike trail, about 1.3 miles long, is open much to the delight of cyclists because there are few paved, off-street bike trails on the Treasure Coast. Nick Dibenedetto (front), Joe Reilly (middle) and Mark Hamel (back) try it out. Walkers and runners will also enjoy it.

City amenities promote active lifestyles

BY SUSAN BURGESS

Some things are worth getting out of bed for on a Saturday morning: a glorious sunrise bike ride; an early-morning canoe launch into the still, reflecting waters of a river; a visit to a quiet park to work out on the fitness circuit. It’s a chance to soak up the peace and quiet of the early hours of the day, burn off the week’s cares and calories and renew body and spirit.

The active lifestyle, promoting fitness and health for Port St. Lucie residents, is an important part of the 55-year-old city’s plan for its future, says Mayor Gregory Oravec.

The city is taking aim at obesity and taking its place alongside larger and older cities that provide amenities such as dedicated bicycle trails, horseback riding trails, disc golf, fitness circuits and hiking trails.

“Health is a trend today in city planning,” says Patti Tobin, the city’s planning and zoning director. “Planners are looking at more ways to provide active recreation.”

The latest perks for fitness and nature-conscious visitors and residents include a new paved bike trail, a river canoe launch, an expanded Savannas Preserve State Park education center, and, if the money can be raised, an outdoor fitness circuit in the Southbend area.

The bike trail, canoe launch and education center expansion are some of the ways the city chose to mitigate the impacts of the new Crosstown Parkway bridge over the North Fork of the St. Lucie River. The choice to go for active outdoor projects fits in with the state’s Healthiest Weight Florida initiative as well as its own master plan.

Avid cyclist Nick Dibenedetto and friends are thrilled with plans to create new bike trails. They recently tried out the new 1.3-mile Savannas Recreation Trail off East Midway Road. “You can’t get a lot of miles in on that trail but you can connect to it from other roads and it’s a great destination for a bike ride,” he says. The Savannas Recreation Area is popular with campers, has kayaks for rent for those who want to go out into the wetlands and plenty of places to picnic or play games.

The city collaborated with St. Lucie County and Fort Pierce to get the project done. The new trail is a segment of the St. Lucie North-South Trail that connects to Green River Parkway and is also a piece of the great East Coast Greenway that will eventually connect Key West to Maine.

CANAL TRAIL
The Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Committee of the St. Lucie Transportation Planning Organization recently heard a proposal for a 6.25-mile canal-side trail along Canal 24, also known as Diversion Canal, Dibenedetto said. He is a member of that committee and is a project coordinator in traffic operations for the city. The concept won a favorable reception from the advisory committee, making it a candidate for project status in the future. The next step will be to seek grant money from the state Recreational Trails Program.

The trail, constructed in phases, would run from Crosstown Parkway to a park at Southbend Boulevard. There are some hurdles, particularly a very low bridge at Port St. Lucie Boulevard, he says.

The city has always had many parks and many people who use them. But the emphasis on providing more active ways to engage with the outdoors and interest in the well-being of its citizens is usually seen in larger, older cities and not so much in smaller, younger ones.

NOW A MATURE CITY
Port St. Lucie has matured, though. It survived difficult times, is chiseling away at a mountain of debt and is finally able to focus on helping its residents stay trim and healthy and find new ways to enjoy the outdoors, a goal that Mayor Oravec applauds.

“The city has a commitment to healthy living and lifestyles,” Oravec says. “It’s written into our strategic plan. A healthy population is one with less medical spending and more discretionary income, more productivity, and people are happier when they feel healthy.”

The city’s emphasis on completing active recreation projects dovetails with the state Health Department’s efforts to help people become healthier by becoming more fit. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 65 percent of Floridians are overweight and of that number, 26.6 percent are obese.

LIVING WELL IN PSL
One plan the city is trying to get off the ground required a novel idea for funding, said city spokeswoman Jennifer Newell. A fitness circuit with eight or 10 outdoor exercise machines may be installed at Jessica Clinton Park in the Southbend area if citizens and local businesses kick in the $30,000 needed. To acquire the funds the city turned to the hottest current method: crowdfunding, where many donors give small amounts and together they raise the needed funds for a project.

A page for Living Well in PSL Family Fitness Zone was quietly set up on FundRazr.com but has drawn few contributions so far, despite the city’s poll showing that many residents would like to have a fitness circuit there. Sixty-four percent of the 999 people surveyed said they would use the circuit even if they didn’t live near it, while 88 percent said they were sure that others would use it. Forty six percent of the respondents said they would contribute. Use of the circuit would be free.

Newell said the next step is to ask businesses to get on board with contributions. If the city is successful, fitness circuits can be expected in other parks.

Port St. Lucie already has an indoor fitness and wellness center with classes sponsored by Humana at the civic center. Vero Beach has an outdoor circuit at Riverside Park.

LAUNCH FOR ALL
Frank Knott, the city’s project manager in the regulatory division of the Department of Public Works is excited about the new canoe launch on Evans Creek in the Savannas Preserve State Park. It’s on the west side of U.S. 1, north of Walton Road. For canoers and kayakers familiar with the area, it is 1,000 feet south of the former launch site, which was in a wet area. The new one is on higher ground and is expected to be drier.

“The new canoe launch will be much nicer,” Knott says. “We used an existing firebreak (cleared area) for a paved road and put in a parking lot with ADA accessibility. People will be able to stay dry. It’s great.” The new launch also puts the city in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, allowing disabled people to get out on the river.

The city also built a 3,000-square-foot addition onto the Savannas Education Center in the state park. The expansion includes a lab and a large classroom. The education center is used by teachers whose students become more eager to get out on the trails when they learn what they might see. Adult visitors to the preserve use the center for the same reason.

“We want people to enjoy Port St. Lucie as a place to have an active lifestyle,” Oravec says. “It’s part of our plan for the future.”