By Leonora LaPeter Anton
NORTH PORT — One day in early September, Frank and Lana Usherenko set out from their gated stucco home on an exploratory mission.
Lana, 65, wearing a floppy green hat and fuchsia lipstick, had wrapped an aching ankle in an Ace bandage. Frank, 73, a Soviet wrestling champion, hiked one step ahead of her.
As the sun broke past the horizon, they walked down the deserted residential street, past weedy driveways and consecutive For Sale signs. It felt like a faded Florida ghost town.
They passed a grassy field coated in dew and stopped on the edge of a large empty parking lot. Their mile-long journey was one they repeated every morning, a pilgrimage to the place that prompted them to move here three years ago. A sign near a flagpole read "Warm Mineral Springs."
Frank and Lana call it, simply, "the lake." It's a spring that replenishes itself with 9 million gallons of mineral-rich water every two hours. Last year, it drew 120,000 visitors. Since July 1, it has been closed.
"The lake was our lives," Lana said.
Thousands of years ago, a sinkhole formed in what is now North Port, leaving behind an hourglass-shaped fissure 240 feet deep. Over time, ancient hot seawater from a vent several thousand feet below ground blended with cooler freshwater from the overlying aquifer, forming a brew with at least 51 different minerals.
In the 1940s, it became one of those quirky Florida roadside attractions. But Americans prefer saltwater. For Eastern Europeans, however, who discovered Warm Mineral Springs in the 1970s and 80s, the bleached burg 25 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico was a mecca. Many, like Lana and Frank, retired there and ordered their lives around a daily hours-long soak in the spring.
More than two years ago, the city of North Port and Sarasota County purchased the decaying 81-acre property for $5.25 million. This past July, the contract with the private operator expired amid bureaucratic wrangling over what the spring should become. A tourism destination? Or a simple park, as it is now?
The spring closed for the first time anyone could remember.
Lana and Frank ventured into the empty parking lot. The sound of running water could be heard from a tiny stream. They had seen an electrician's van — a potentially good sign — but now he had left.
"It's dead," said Frank.
"It's sad," said Lana.
Originally from Ukraine, Lana and Frank have known sorrow. They left behind friends and family and careers when they immigrated here in the 1970s to escape anti-Semitism. In Baltimore, they cobbled together service jobs in transportation and cosmetology and saved for their retirement. Now this.
They couldn't sell their home. It would mean a loss. Too many other homes for sale.
Another couple showed up.
"It's heartbreaking to come to this parking lot," said Joe Kreisel, a retired home contractor.
A security guard emerged from the lobby. The couples pounced. Why had the electrician come? Were there plans to open soon?
"All I know is they are putting new lights in, updating it," said the guard, Keith Browne.
"Can we peek inside?" asked Kreisel's wife, Jenya.
"No, no, no," said Browne.
Kreisel was leaning on the hood of his white Honda Fit, holding his back. It ached.
"So you guys are getting our money to keep us out of this place," Kreisel said.
"I have no fight in this game," Browne said. "I do security."
Kreisel nodded. "We're not blaming you."
A few weeks later, Dr. Grigory Pogrebinsky, 67, of Brooklyn, N.Y., stood in a light gray suit in front of the North Port City Commission. He had submitted one of two bids to reopen the spring.
Pogrebinsky, originally from Ukraine like the Usherenkos, said he had spent $2 million to buy 20 adjacent acres. He planned to build a resort with Warm Mineral Springs as the "centerpiece."
"I want to reassure national and international visitors, the spring is waiting for them," he said, "and never will be closed."
Lana and Frank learned from a friend that Pogrebinsky's company got the contract and planned to open soon. Lana hoped "the lake" didn't become "extra commercial."
But her biggest concern was just getting it open. Her sciatica had flared up and she was having trouble walking. Acupuncture wasn't cutting it. A couple of hours in the water would do wonders.
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8640.