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Swiftmud approves plan to overhaul Weeki Wachee park

WEEKI WACHEE — Nature lovers will one day gaze up at the stars from campsites just a short hike away from the Weekiwachee River and the spring that doubles as a world famous mermaid stage.

Just beyond their tent flaps, campers will pick up a nature trail, trek through scrubland and around wetlands that have remained mostly unspoiled since the Seminole Indians made the area around Weeki Wachee Springs their home.

"That park could lend itself to camping," said former County Commissioner Rose Rocco, president of the Friends of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. "It could be something positive."

The primitive campgrounds and nature trail are part of a site management plan approved last week by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The district, commonly known as Swiftmud, owns the roughly 580 acres on which the park sits. Officials presented the draft plan at community meetings held at the park last fall.

Would-be campers shouldn't start packing anytime soon, though. For now, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is focused on tackling a backlog of repairs and renovations at the 64-year-old landmark, officials said.

The department has spent about $900,000 for capital work since taking over the park over from Weeki Wachee Springs LLC in November 2008. The money went to a range of improvements, from new roofs to a fresh curtain for the mermaid theater.

The slides at the Buccaneer Bay water park have been painted and repaired. Grass is growing again. As part of a Swiftmud project that started about the same time the state took over the park, divers sucked up lyngbya algae and other invasive vegetation from the spring and planted new sea grass.

"It's getting better every day," said park manager Toby Brewer, who took the job in May 2009.

Much of the progress, such as electrical and plumbing work in the decades-old buildings, isn't visible to visitors. Built long before accessibility laws, bathrooms and other structures need to be retrofitted to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A dockside wheelchair lift will soon be added for access to the Aqua Bell, the tour boat used for the river cruise.

"We just want everybody to be able to enjoy it," Brewer said.

About $6 million in repairs and renovations are identified in the management plan, including roughly $3.5 million for the mermaid theater.

An engineering marvel, the theater is in surprisingly good shape, Brewer said. A good chunk of the price tag will be for the roof.

The existing sloped wooden structure covers the original, concrete clamshell roof that became an iconic feature of the park. Ideally, the clamshell will be restored to its former glory, but it's still unclear if that will be possible.

Three other elements that date from the pre-1970 era will be restored: The mermaid wall that was part of the original entrance; the mermaid statue that now stands above the fountain at the existing entrance; and a formal garden known as the Garden of the Stars where props for mermaid shows were once displayed.

•••

Last week, news that DEP is proposing to add family campsites to Honeymoon Island in Dunedin sparked an outcry. The state park, which closes at sundown, could get up to 45 campsites, including spots for recreational vehicles.

No diesel fume-belching RVs will rumble onto campsites at Weeki Wachee Springs, though. So-called family camping areas are not in the management plan.

What is included is one primitive camping area in the western portion of the park. The management plan lists two potential locations, both on an existing service road.

The northernmost site is close to the river at the edge of a hammock, in an area that had already been slightly cleared years ago for park use, said Will Miller, land use and protection manager for Swiftmud.

The other potential location is farther south, near the top of a ridge bordering an area of scrubby flatwoods that also had been disturbed.

A picnic table and a fire ring are the only facilities recommended for the site. Campers would park in the existing lot and walk to the site.

"Scrub is a rare habitat," Miller said. "If they had to build a road and a bathhouse and whatever else comes with family camping, those impacts would most likely be unacceptable to us and I would imagine to DEP as well."

The campsites would be at the northern edge of an interpretive trail that would loop back east nearly to U.S. 19. The trail would include overlooks at the river and Twin Dees Spring. Researchers believe the smaller spring, not accessible to the general public, is connected to the main spring.

There are plenty of other recommendations in the plan, many of which will be years in the making as money comes available:

• Completely redevelop Buccaneer Bay, replacing buildings with a new concession building, bathhouse and picnic pavilions. At least one waterslide, the Pirates Plunge, will be removed when funding is available.

"The other water slides will remain until these structures can no longer be economically maintained in a safe and serviceable condition," the plan states. Eventually, the water park will be phased out, replaced by a "simpler, more resourced-based swimming area typical to those provided in other parks."

• Dismantle the Riverside Theater and create a picnic area with a large pavilion.

• Relocate utility buildings to make room for a large area for special programs and improve the function of the current canoe and kayak launch area.

• Use the four cottages that once housed mermaids for interpretative exhibits, classroom space or other park-related uses.

•••

When the park system took over the attraction, it also took on the responsibility of running the canoe and kayak rental, gift shop and restaurant.

Now another private firm is taking those back.

Continuing a decades-long practice of contracting with private firms, the concession operations at Weeki Wachee will now be run by for-profit companies.

Cape Leisure Corporation of Cape Canaveral was the only company to bid to run the Pirates Grub eatery, the Galley Restaurant, Gifts Ahoy shop and the canoe and kayak rental operation, among others.

Company officials did not return a call seeking comment. But president Daniel LeBlanc is no stranger to Weeki Wachee.

In the early 1990s, LeBlanc served as vice president of marketing for the Silver Springs and Weeki Wachee Springs attractions, as well as the Weeki Wachee Spring Holiday Inn. He later worked as head of marketing at Miami Seaquarium and president of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex before launching Cape Leisure in 2008.

The company already runs the food concessions at Homosassa Springs. Now it will run the retail store there and the concessions at Wakulla Springs, too, Brewer said.

The company will pay a $2,000 monthly base fee and a 4 percent commission on gross sales through November of next year, according to the contract. The commission will eventually increase to 8 percent. The state can terminate the agreement within an initial six-month trial period.

The park's operating budget was $2.7 million in 2009-10. Current year figures won't be available until August. In a time of financial uncertainty, a key element to the parks success is volunteer efforts, Brewer said, and the recently formed Friends of Weeki Wachee Springs is off to a productive start.

The contributions range from manpower to monetary donations. The group has already organized the new Sirens of the Deep mermaid camp for adults and purchased three small buses that can be used to shuttle visitors from remote parking lots during large events, or serve as mermaid carriers for in-state appearances.

Boasting a membership of about 285, the Friends recently partnered with the Children of the American Revolution to bring in a $4,000 donation to build a butterfly garden in the park, Rocco said. The long-term goal is the construction of a museum to tell the attraction's story.

"The big thing is to make sure the park gets the support that it needs," Rocco said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or at (352) 848-1431.

Swiftmud approves plan to overhaul Weeki Wachee park 07/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 2, 2011 11:18am]
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