BROOKSVILLE — Weeki Wachee Springs State Park may be Hernando County's single-most popular tourist destination, but County Administrator Len Sossamon wants potential visitors to know that the county offers more than mermaids.
To that end, Sossamon is seeking a $3 million allocation from the Florida Legislature to build an environmental education center off Shoal Line Boulevard in Hernando Beach.
The initiative, along with several others, is focused on making sure that when people think of the Nature Coast, they think of Hernando County. Then, Sossamon hopes, they will come and stay and spend their money.
His long-term plan combines the development of a number of public- and private-sector elements. While nothing is set is stone, the administrator hopes to see improved use of the Weekiwachee Preserve and potential development of more retail offerings — maybe even a hotel and conference center at some point.
Within the next couple of years, the county is set to decommission the troublesome wastewater treatment plant on Osowaw Boulevard, leaving the county with acreage for redevelopment at a well-traveled intersection, he noted.
The education center is a more immediate plan, and just last week Sossamon was in Tallahassee checking in on the $3 million request.
County officials, including County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes, have been talking to Gordon Wolf, the owner of Blue Pelican Marina, and his brother, Ron, who manages the business. They have been active in efforts to promote the Hernando Beach area and pitched the idea of creating an education center and venue for the arts and performing arts.
Another meeting to continue the discussion is slated for next week, Dukes said.
Sossamon is a big believer in public-private partnerships because he saw them work well as he helped make Concord, N.C., a destination with its huge Concord Mills mall and related development.
He also believes that Hernando County's natural resources are a lure that can increase the number of overnight visitors to the county, once they find out what Hernando has to offer.
"We need to create a new venue,'' Sossamon said. "We have to give them a reason to come stay and play for a week.''
Sossamon, who also wears the hat of economic development director for the county, said tourism development is economic development. Tammy Heon, the county's tourism development coordinator, agrees.
More tourists mean more dollars in local cash drawers, Heon pointed out. More overnight visitors mean higher collections of the county's tourist tax. More tourism money buys promotion of the community in better-read publications. And better promotion brings more visitors.
"Every ship rises on the tide,'' Heon said. "And tourism wants to be the tide.''
She is excited about the possibilities for the education center.
"We are going to be able to tell such an incredible story about Hernando County, and (visitors) will want to stay, and that will put heads in beds,'' she said.
The message will stress that Hernando County is trying to protect its natural resources.
"Anytime you can make people understand what it is we're trying to protect, you get them on board,'' she said.
Then, hopefully, they will be eager to take a walk through the Weekiwachee Preserve or use the bike trails or rent a kayak. Heon is especially interested in increasing traffic by bird watchers. They spent more than $5 billion in Florida last year.
"It's a very good market for us,'' she said. "They go anywhere and pay anything to find something that they need for their life list.''
Commissioner Diane Rowden, who has been pushing for an environmental center for some time, was excited about planned improvements for the Weekiwachee Preserve, especially since that land was once envisioned as a subdivision called Oak Sound. The developer had planned to build up to 5,900 homes, but conservationists fought the proposal.
Many of the activities discussed in a plan written for the preserve more than a decade ago, then discarded, are back on the table, including walking trails, bike trails and swimming. The property has several lakes.
A former lime rock mine, the first portion of the now-11,206-acre preserve was purchased by the Southwest Florida Water Management District in 1994. Currently, only limited driving access is allowed. Sossamon and Dukes both said that meetings with Swiftmud officials have been encouraging for expanding passive use of the property.
The preserve is "a jewel just sitting there,'' said county Commissioner Nick Nicholson. "We need to let the public use it every day. It would draw people here.''
Other improvements on the drawing board could be accomplished with some of the money the county hopes to get from the BP Oil lawsuit settlement, which could bring in about $8 million. Those include expanding offshore reefs, improving Hunter's Lake in the southwest corner of Spring Hill and adding a boat ramp and boat trailer parking along the county's coastline.
Dukes, who lives in Hernando Beach, noted that when he leaves his house, he travels by a place where an eagle is often perched. When he drives past the nearby Port Authority office, there is another eagle.
"You can't see that in a lot of places,'' he said. "We do have a lot to offer, but we've been quiet about it and we haven't developed it.
"Maybe now is our time.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected].