On Jan. 28, with a gathered crowd, the ribbon for Rish Park was cut, and for the first time in three years, the state’s only fully wheelchair-accessible park was open.
The park, which was closed after Hurricane Michael left it badly damaged, spent years in disrepair – drawing criticism from disability advocates, who demanded in 2021 that positive change be made with its repairs.
Rish Park had been managed by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities since the 1980s when, in November, 2021, the park’s ownership changed hands.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s State Pakrs Division stepped in to get the park back up and running, making William J. Rish Recreation Area Gulf County’s third state park.
“I was here first with both agencies, walking and talking through how that transition would go before it was open,”said State Sen. for District 3 Loranne Ausley at the Coastal Community Association of Gulf County’s meeting on Feb. 5. “And then I came back a couple weeks ago. It’s a soft reopening, but I know everyone is really excited to see that property back in use.”
The park’s reopening will be rolled out in phases, and not all of the park’s facilities have been opened back up to public use at this time. However, according to the park’s website, accessible amenities available to guests at this time include beach access, bay access, beach wheelchairs, outdoor shower and rinse stations, changing rooms and picnic facilities.
“In the near future, the Olympic-sized pool will open for swimming and cabins will be available for overnight accommodations,” the website reads. “Plans also include ranger tours and equipment rentals.”
In keeping with policies from DEP, pets are not permitted on the park’s beaches. However, registered service animals are welcome.
Ausley said that in the first draft of the Florida Senate’s 2022-23 fiscal year budget, $6.7 million had been set aside for Rish Park and its improvements.
“There is another $6.7 million in the budget, in both budgets, for Rish Park,” she said, referring to both the State Senate’s draft and the State House’s draft. “(This) is going to really enable them to get the upgrades and get the residential pieces.”
With redistricting mostly complete, the State Senate moved on to deliberations over the state’s budget this week, and a final version of that budget will be put together in the coming weeks. From there, it will be compiled with the State House’s budget, and the state legislature will go to conference to compile the overall budget before it is sent to the governor’s office for review.