LAND O'LAKES — Two days after lawmakers suspended the state's land acquisition program to help plug a $2.4-billion budget hole, more than 100 people sat in folding chairs and listened to dignitaries heap praise on a nearly 3,000-acre nature preserve.
"Bad news, we froze funding for the Florida Forever program," state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told the crowd Friday at the dedication of Conner Preserve. "But we've got to get our economy back going again. We want to buy lands and protect more lands … but we also have to make sure we get people employed so we can pay for this stuff."
The news, along with temperatures in the mid 50s and a U.S. flag that snapped in the stiff wind, didn't erase the smiles of those who came for the morning of guided nature hikes, a demonstration of model airplanes by a club that manages a field on the site and free barbecue.
County Commissioner Ted Schrader, a lifelong east Pasco resident, talked about the old rural days and the need to shield some land from developers.
"When I was growing up my family used to own land near Bayonet Point. We used to beg our dad to please stop at Gowers Corner because it was the last place you could get an RC Cola and a MoonPie before you got to U.S. 19," he said.
That's a huge contrast to today's rapid development on every corner and Schrader said he's proud of the county's own land acquisition program paid for with Penny for Pasco revenues.
"We can leverage our dollars by partnering with the state," he said.
The day began with guided tours of the preserve's nature trails, water-quality monitoring demonstrations and the flying of model planes. Those watching got to see an accident involving an airplane and a helicopter. The helicopter lost.
Kids from Countryside Montessori Elementary School and Academy at the Farm took a field trip to the event, sponsored by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
"We got some information on it and thought it would be an interesting thing to do," said Tonya Hester, who co-teaches fifth and sixth grades with Courtney Teel at the Montessori school.
"We got to see bones of dead animals —- deer and wild boar," said Jamie Sturgess, 11.
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.