Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series spotlighting museums, parks and other opportunities for excursions around North Florida—all within a day trip of Gainesville. To see other Florida Finds stories, click here.
Downtown Gainesville’s signature outdoor gathering spot, the 32-acre Depot Park right at the junction of Depot Avenue and South Main Street, is hard to miss.
In a way, it is Gainesville’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park. There’s something for everyone – regardless of age or physical ability. Runners, walkers, joggers, picnic-goers, families, including those with small children, nature lovers, history buffs, festival goers when an event is taking place, and even museum afficionados drawn to the Cade Museum, which anchors the park.
“Our park is a little bit of everything,” park supervisor Adam Bouchard said. “What’s different here is that it is a cumulative effort of the city, the county and the people who live here. It’s a community thing.”
The railroad Depot, built around 1860, was a stop for the Florida Railroad, which connected the east and west coasts of Florida from Fernandina to Cedar Key. It remained a functioning railroad site until the 1920s. Nothing much happened for decades, until the station was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
A year later, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded the city of Gainesville a Brownfield pilot project grant. (Brownfield refers to land that has been polluted by industrial use.)
“One of the first issues they recognized was the environmental problem,” Bouchard said. “There had been a lot of dumping on the ground. There were a lot of toxic chemicals into the soil and the water that was already here. So they had to figure out what to do to get those toxic chemicals out of the ground, so it would be a safe spot for the community.”
That’s what happened for the next 20 years or so, as work continued to make a contaminated urban area an appealing green space in the city. Work included “The Big Dig,” as part of a remedial action plan to get rid of 147,000 tons of contaminated soil. Over 40 million gallons of contaminated water was also treated and discharged.
Work continued to find a way to keep the area environmentally safe, environmentally functional and pleasing to the eye.
“Depot Park is also an environmental cleanup area, “ Bouchard said. “That is the main goal of the site, while being a safe spot for the community.”
But there’s more. In 2012, the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency rehabilitated the train station, which now houses a convenience store, a restaurant, and a place where beer and wine is sold.
There’s also the park anchor, the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention, which was named after James Robert Cade, the lead inventor of Gatorade. The 21,000-square-foot museum opened in 2018.
“The city wanted a museum to bring education to the community, and Cade was awarded that area,” Bouchard said. “There is a partnership when we host events or they host events to work together, to run things as most efficiently as possible.
The park also hosts the local park run, a free, 5k community event that takes place at 7:30 a.m. every Saturday. It is one of 64 park run events taking place around the country.
Depot Park opened the summer of 2016 with a singular children’s play area that includes a splash pad with waterfalls, water soakers and ground jets.
“It’s not just children who play in there,” Bouchard said, noting the many adults who take advantage of the water to cool off during a hot summer day in Gainesville.
For those who prefer to look at the water, there’s the promenade along the pond, which lifts spirits just with a glance.
But even before it became a park, the area didn’t go unnoticed. It was celebrated by Tom Petty and his first band, Mudcrutch, as the misnamed “Depot Street.” The song talked about “dancin’ in the park,” decades before Depot Park existed—and there really was dancing in the park. Talk about an uncanny prediction of the future.