Enterprising developers have come and gone in Palm Beach County. They left behind decidedly mixed results as evidence of their passing; but to some we owe acknowledgment and an expression of gratitude for the generosity to protect through their philanthropy a small portion of what is unique about the State of Florida’s landscape. A stunning example of a deed well done is John D. MacArthur’s donation of land for a public park, which along with the support of the State of Florida and others, enabled the establishment in 1989 of the John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, the only state park in Palm Beach County.
My first visit to the park was back in 2007. The experience was one of discovery, encountering with surprise, an embarrassment of environmental riches, deeply cloaked in verdant shadows, hidden in plain sight, yet its pleasures and mysteries accessible as a legacy for all to enjoy. The moss-draped live oaks and luxuriant, subtropical vegetation welcome visitors to a place that belongs to the age when Florida was Eden. This lush stretch of coastal land and beach between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Worth Lagoon is over four hundred acres of natural environments available year-round to the public to enjoy and explore. The park’s bio-diversity includes many endangered species of birds and plants. Two miles of pristine beaches on turquoise waters are among the world’s most important nesting grounds for rare sea turtles.
It is remarkable that such a place is sustained in a comparatively natural state, given its location is only a short gull’s flight from the major commerce and urban development of Palm Beach Gardens. The park’s full expanse includes an additional 500 acres of submerged lands and a small wilderness island, once the site of a luxury hotel, only accessible by boat. If you imagined yourself seeking refuge on an island of calm, with a welcoming and hospitable shore, this would be the tropical oasis of your dreams.
How this special place came to be conserved and protected for now and future generations demonstrates the multiplier effect of philanthropy: Abundance is born out of generosity and common goals are accomplished through partnerships—even though there may be powerful, competing interests. The State of Florida’s role is key to the park’s conservation but the people’s “ownership” is critical, too if the park’s stewardship is to be manifested in experiences and educational opportunities that broadly touch many lives; and instill attitudes essential for the conservation and protection of this and similar places, for now and all time. The story of how the park came into existence begins with John D. MacArthur, a name as ubiquitous as that of Henry Flagler in Palm Beach County (PBC).
MacArthur arrived in Florida decades after Flagler. He made his vast fortune in the insurance business in Chicago. Known for his shrewd business acumen, MacArthur started investing in Florida real estate in the mid ‘50’s, purchasing 2,600 acres in North Palm Beach County for $5.5 million. He did his land deals in an eatery at the Colonnades Beach Hotel on Singer Island where he and his wife had a residence.
On his death, the majority of MacArthur’s estate was gifted to establish The John D. and Catherine T. Foundation. The Foundation supported the park in its early years, providing funding for the nature center and park facilities. Over time, the Foundation’s ties to PBC have diminished. Growing sources of local charitable investment in the park became necessary and important. In 1990, local leaders formed the Friends of MacArthur Beach State Park as a citizens’ support group. Similar groups around the state are associated with other public lands but the PBC group is one of the most effective, leveraging substantial contributions that help fund MacArthur Beach State Park’s operations, recreational activities and educational programs.
The nonprofit relies on memberships, donors, and community volunteers to help finance a broad range of activities at the park, including educational and community outreach programs, special exhibits, guided tours, and interpretive programs. Contributions also help support physical improvement in the park‘s facilities. The Friend’s major fundraisers include the annual “Shop till You Drop” event and luncheon to be held this year at the Club at Admirals Cove on December 14th. The fundraiser supports a hands-on natural science education experience benefiting over 5,000 students in PBC. With so many families and children benefiting from the outreach effort of the Friends of MacArthur Beach State Park, one can reasonably presume Mr. MacArthur would have been pleased with the returns on his investment.