BROOKSVILLE — After weeks of back-and-forth talks between residents and the county, Hernando County commissioners have decided to focus on Weeki Wachee Springs State Park as the site for the Nature Coast Education and Tourism Center.
The motion was passed tentatively Tuesday, pending results of a meeting today with a park planner from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Commissioners left room for flexibility to consider three other proposed sites in the Weekiwachee Preserve if the state and county can't come to a suitable agreement on details such as access and parking.
"If they feel like they can meet those stipulations, then we should move forward with Weeki Wachee Springs," Commissioner Diane Rowden said before the vote. "It is the trademark. It is Hernando County."
The alternate sites include the Lake House in Spring Hill and three locations in the preserve, which is west of U.S. 19 and south of Weeki Wachee.
Some commissioners and residents showed apprehensive support for sites in the preserve. But most were adamantly opposed, fearing that traffic would clog Osowaw and Shoal Line boulevards and create an environmental plight for the preserve.
Opening the access road off Osowaw to the preserve would be "more environmentally impacting than any of the other alternatives you guys have looked at," said Kevin Love, a retired Southwest Florida Water Management District land manager.
Most residents favored the state park site, including Mac Davis, president of the Gulf Coast Conservancy. Davis said the park would work for multiple reasons. It's already a proven public attraction, major infrastructure is in place and it's in a prominent, accessible location.
Brooksville resident Tina Henize agreed, but requested that commissioners not dip into the county's environmentally sensitive lands funds to come up with the $3 million match for the state's funding for the center.
Others introduced their own plans for the site. Mike Liberton of Ridge Manor suggested merging with the Chinsegut Conservation Center north of Brooksville. Another resident, Richard Ross, thought a spot in the Withlacoochee State Forest off Interstate 75 would lure more travelers off the highway.
"This is supposed to be a tourist draw as I understand it," Ross said. "The reality is … the only way Hernando County has to get tourists is one exit off 75 — Exit 301."
Commissioners, however, agreed that the state park would be the ideal location.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance," Chairman Wayne Dukes said. "Let's get it right the first time."
Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (352)754-6114. Follow @kathrynvarn.