Wednesday, June 20, 2018
News Roundup

Hernando officials believe environmental education center, other projects could lure tourists

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].

Comments
Forecast: Hot and humid on summerís eve across Tampa Bay, with rain chances increasing

Forecast: Hot and humid on summerís eve across Tampa Bay, with rain chances increasing

Wednesday will be the longest day of the year, literally, as the day before the official start of summer yields the most amount of sunshine.Tampa Bay has already seen lots of sunshine, heat and humidity this year, and while that sunshine may be obscu...
Updated: 9 minutes ago
Pope Francis criticizes Trumpís family-separation policy on migrants, says Ďpopulism is not the solutioní

Pope Francis criticizes Trumpís family-separation policy on migrants, says Ďpopulism is not the solutioní

Pope Francis stepped into a growing controversy over President Donald Trumpís immigration policies, criticizing the separation of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexican border and saying that "populism" and "creating psychosis" are not the way to resol...
Updated: 16 minutes ago
The Daystarter: Republican response to immigration firestorm; donít let Yuengling name scare you; Hedman flattered, but unfulfilled

The Daystarter: Republican response to immigration firestorm; donít let Yuengling name scare you; Hedman flattered, but unfulfilled

Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what to know today.ē Thereís no more denying it: summer is here. The forecast calls for highs near 90 degrees for the foreseeable future, coupled with afternoon showers, according to 10Weather WTSP.ē As y...
Updated: 1 hour ago
What historically high lumber prices mean for Florida home buyers

What historically high lumber prices mean for Florida home buyers

Blame a lack of rail cars in Canada or not enough semi trucks in the United States. Forest fires didn’t help. Tariffs played a big role, too. Even the buoyant economy takes part of the rap for frothy lumber prices, which hit all-time highs las...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Citizens considers hiking homeowners insurance rates about 8 percent

Citizens considers hiking homeowners insurance rates about 8 percent

For the second year in a row, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. is asking state regulators to approve hefty rate hikes because of an abundance of non-weather claims that end up in court. If approved, the average rates for homeowners covered by Citize...
Updated: 2 hours ago
What historically high lumber prices mean for Florida home buyers

What historically high lumber prices mean for Florida home buyers

Blame a lack of rail cars in Canada or not enough semi trucks in the United States. Forest fires didn’t help. Tariffs played a big role, too. Even the buoyant economy takes part of the rap for frothy lumber prices, which hit all-time highs las...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Hereís the skinny on the ketogenic diet: What it is, how to follow it properly

Hereís the skinny on the ketogenic diet: What it is, how to follow it properly

It started with jugs of olive oil and cans of tuna, lots of it, which my husband hauled in one day and plunked on the counter. "Thatís my lunch!"That was about three months ago, and every day since there has been a new entity in our house to consider...
Updated: 2 hours ago
New dorm still coming to USF St. Petersburg, but in a smaller package

New dorm still coming to USF St. Petersburg, but in a smaller package

ST. PETERSBURG ó Originally pitched as a nine- or 10-story, 550-bed dorm for the overcrowded University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, USFís latest residence hall project will likely look much different by the time itís done.For starters, it...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Safety Harbor is no safe haven from cyberbullying

Safety Harbor is no safe haven from cyberbullying

SAFETY HARBOR ó Mayor Joe Ayoub put forth a resolution Monday evening asking the City Commission to condemn cyberbullying.The result? The meeting devolved into shouting and whispering from the crowd and people storming out of chambers.The mayorís res...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Carlton: From Sun Dome to Beer Stadium: Don’t let suds scare you

Carlton: From Sun Dome to Beer Stadium: Don’t let suds scare you

Am I missing something in the — pardon the expression — brouhaha over the renaming of the University of South Florida Sun Dome to the Yuengling Center? In trading a college arena’s longtime name for that of a big-name beer brewed ne...
Updated: 2 hours ago