By Martin Merzer

Cascades Park in Tallahassee simply has to be the most attractive storm water management facility in the nation.

Miles of trails for walking, jogging and biking, with surround-vision vistas of Florida’s capital city, its universities, its neighborhoods and the state’s Capitol. Historical homages to Tallahassee’s earliest pioneers and to an early community of middle-class African-American residents. A walk-in fountain with 73 water jets to cool the kids – and a sound and light show to delight everyone.

Wait, wait. Don’t forget the amphitheater, complete with a canopied stage, comfortable seats and a wide variety of musical and theatrical events.

You call this a storm water management facility? You bet, and it was much needed to prevent flooding. But it’s all now cleverly camouflaged as Tallahassee’s 24-acre downtown Cascades Park, the capital city’s newest and one of its most dynamic green space and public recreational facilities.

Forty years in the making, Cascades Park is a remarkably attractive destination for visitors and for local residents. It clearly is one of the proudest recent accomplishments of the city of Tallahassee and all of surrounding Leon County, a region already rightfully pleased with its abundant parks, canopy roads, nature trails and other green spaces.

“It’s the crown jewel of our community,” said Leon County Commissioner Kristin Dozier, a third-generation resident of Tallahassee and chair of the area’s Blueprint 2000 Intergovernmental Agency, which was largely responsible for developing the park.

City Commissioner Scott Maddox, a former Tallahassee mayor, also played a leading role in creating Cascades Park in Tallahassee. “It’s our Central Park,” he said.

There’s little doubt that this is the Central Park of Tallahassee. The L-shaped, pond-intensive park is located just three blocks from the state Capitol and from City Hall. It’s also within easy reach of most other downtown office buildings – a perfect spot for a lunchtime stroll and mini-picnic. Parking is abundant and generally free, especially on weekends.

“It’s Tallahassee’s finest attraction that doesn’t involve football,” said John Van Gieson, a longtime Tallahassee resident and community activist.

‘Let’s go to Cascades’

Opened in March 2014, Cascades Park is so convenient, so packed with opportunities, that it swiftly became known simply as, “Hey, let’s go to Cascades!” Now, on any given day, but especially on weekends, you’ll find:

· Kids flying kites in the many open green spaces or frolicking in their own “play zone,” a place called Discovery. Built with natural materials, Discovery features a butterfly garden, a log jump, a sandy “beach” area and more. This is one of the top weekend activities for families in Tallahassee.

“Cascades is already one of our favorite places for weekend adventures,” said Raquel Simon-Petley, a marketing executive who frequently brings her son, Mathew, nearly 2 years old, to the park. “We love the serene beauty, the convenience of benches and bathrooms, the water element on hot days, and the kid-friendly nature of it all.”

The play area was not an original element of the park. But a dedicated group of residents, working under the auspices of the Knight Creative Communities Institute (KCCI), determined the need for a creative kids zone and, with funding from local businesses, made it happen.

“It sounds corny, but this was the most satisfying, most important thing I have done to make the community in which I live a better place,” said Van Gieson, a key KCCI member. “I am bursting with pride that I was able to be a part of developing this park.”

· Nearly 2.5 miles of trails for biking, walking and jogging. Yes, you can bring your pet. Just be sure to keep it on a leash and to clean up after it. (Pet waste stations are strategically placed.)

· Imagination Fountain, already a local favorite. Here, 73 computer-programmed water jets ebb and flow from the ground, keeping children cool and their parents amused. Changing rooms are available. The fountain operates from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. Be sure to return at night on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for the seven-minute water, music and light show. Starting times for that: 8 p.m., 8:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.

“Matty just loves the fountains,” Simon-Petley said. “Every time we go to Cascades, my husband says with a huge grin on his face, ‘I can't believe this is in Tallahassee. We're so lucky!’“

· Historical features, including a Korean War Memorial and the state’s Prime Meridian Marker, the primary reference point for every land survey still being performed in the state of Florida. The marker originally was set in 1824 by acting Gov. George Walton when Tallahassee was established as the territorial capital of Florida. At the time, the city (now with 181,000 residents) was home to fewer than 200.

· The Smokey Hollow Commemoration, a tribute to an African-American community of the 1900s that once stood on portions of Cascades Park and served as home to prominent black leaders and many others who worked in the city. Three replica “shotgun” homes from the Smokey Hollow era are located just a short stroll from the John C. Riley Museum, which also commemorates that time and place.

“My favorite part of the park is the commemoration of Smokey Hollow,” Maddox said. “It’s a tip of the hat to our local heritage.”

· And, of course, the Capital City Amphitheater, a beautiful outdoor stage for concerts and shows. With 1,546 fixed seats and a lawn area that can accommodate another 1,500 people, it’s already becoming one of North Florida’s prime entertainment areas.

“The amazing amphitheater is something this community has never had,” Dozier said. “We’ll have national and local acts, plays, all kinds of things. We’re going to have a lot of fun out here.”

Green space and game-changer

So, how did this come to be? Well, it wasn’t easy.

The park sits on the spot where hilly Tallahassee originated, a site that entranced early pioneers with a 30-foot waterfall that cascaded into a shimmering pool, a source – at least during the early years – of pure water for those pioneers and, later, for city residents.

As Tallahassee developed, the area served as home to a minor league baseball and football field and to a city-owned gas plant that, unfortunately, contaminated much of the site. By the 1990s, then Mayor Maddox and other city officials began searching for a way to clean up the site and mitigate some of the flooding that plagued adjacent portions of the city.

Though it took many years to bring together numerous government agencies and diverse community groups, it finally all produced Cascades Park – particularly after city and county voters agreed to extend a penny sales tax under the Blueprint 2000 umbrella.

“Why are there so many ponds here? That’s what this park is all about,” said Wayne Tedder, a director of Blueprint 2000 and a Leon County planner. “It’s a storm water management facility designed as a world-class park. It will alleviate flooding and also treat storm water. This park does it all.”

As a matter of fact, it does.

“This park is a game changer,” Dozier said. “We’re going to be able to attract people (from all over) to see shows here, to use this park, to spend money in our community. It’s going to contribute to the quality of life.”

For more information, visit the park's website: