Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Business

New state plan has Weeki Wachee Springs headed in the right direction

At first, it seems a shame to spend $2 million to fix up a parking lot.

Except that the one at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park — as I saw on a visit last week — is so bleak that it could take the fun out of an outing before it even starts.

Also, what the state has planned is pretty cool: an entrance on U.S. 19 to highlight the park's historic mermaid sculptures; islands of bushes and trees among the parking spaces to add shade and visual variety; a porous substitute for some of that asphalt and a smart use for whatever paving remains.

Sections of the lot will be formed into bowls with just enough grade to funnel contaminated runoff into those islands — where plants will use the water and absorb impurities — rather than allowing it to flow into the spring.

There's a view of another kind of asphalt that overwhelmed me as I walked through the park entrance — asphalt shingles, brown ones, on the roof of every building.

Maybe this was once considered, as park designers say, a unifying theme. If so, it just ensures that you see drabness everywhere you turn.

And if the state carries out its recently announced $8.7 million renovation plan, it be replaced by a much more suitable theme — one that emphasizes the modern architecture popular in the park's heyday of the 1950s and 1960s.

The best example of this, the clamshell roof of the mermaid theater, has been there all along. Restoring it mostly just requires removing one of those 1970s-era brown roofs.

Here are some of the other elements of the plan that are just as sensible and almost as obvious: better views of the spring basin and river, better connection between the Buccaneer Bay water park and the mermaid attraction; the eventual removal of water slides.

And that's what I'm going to focus on — that this could represent a huge improvement for the park and a big deal for this part of Florida.

Added to the $1.5 million grant for the refurbishment of the Chinsegut manor house north of Brooksville, it's a sign that the state is finally willing to invest in this region's tourist attractions.

It's a reminder of how lucky we are that the state took over the park in 2008, rescuing it from the private company that had let it deteriorate into a crumbling eyesore.

It's a relief that the park is in the hands of people with the sense to highlight the spring's beauty and the old attraction's historic look.

And just for now, while the news is fresh, I'll avoid dwelling on the questions I have about the plan, such as whether the park needs a new artificial fountain when it's supposed to be about celebrating one of the most stunning natural fountains imaginable.

I won't worry too much about the lack of specifics in the plan or, as a recent Times editorial pointed out, that without community pressure it could take a very long time to come to fruition.

I'll keep in mind that the spring seems to be a more popular cause every year and that it has another advantage that not many state parks can boast. It brought in about $1.9 million in revenue last year, while costing about $1.6 million to operate, which should appeal to the mercenary tendencies of the people who run the state parks.

I'm sure they realize Weeki Wachee is more than just a nice chunk of nature. It's a moneymaker that, with a little investment, could be a big moneymaker.

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