HERNANDO BEACH — Hernando County officials have settled on a new location for a multimillion-dollar tourist and environmental education plaza — a site that has strong backing from county administration, county commissioners and the coastal community.
Late last week, County Administrator Len Sossamon met with staffers from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and got tentative approval to begin planning the education center for a site inside the Weekiwachee Preserve. The location would be beside the freshwater lakes left behind from mining years ago. Because of the former mining operation, no sensitive habitat would have to be destroyed, Sossamon said.
The encouraging words from Swiftmud got Sossamon talking about a concept that would include an education and tourism center built in a Cracker style with a wrap-around veranda, interactive educational displays of the area's habitat and wildlife, and the bonus of being able to see wildlife on the site. Also in the plan are a white sand beach, a kiddie pool, cabanas, and opportunities for fishing, kayaking and canoeing.
Sossamon, who has walked the site many times, said, "To me, it's drop-dead gorgeous." His working name for the venue: the Nature Coast Experience.
The county hopes to receive a $3 million state allocation for the center, but that is awaiting support from Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected, as early as today, to determine which local projects to veto in the state budget. The county also plans to match the $3 million.
Until recently, the educational plaza site was connected to a proposed rezoning at Blue Pelican Marina in Hernando Beach. In private and public presentations of the rezoning proposal, marina owner Gordon Wolf and his brother, Ron, touted an expansion plan that included the education center. The community, however, expressed strong opposition. And that caused county officials to look at other sites, though they had never committed to the marina location.
Sossamon said after his meeting with Swiftmud that he wanted to present commissioners with other options but didn't want to spend a lot of money exploring multiple sites, so he focused on the property in the preserve, which is bordered roughly by the Weeki Wachee River on the north, Osowaw Boulevard on the south, Shoal Line Boulevard on the west and U.S. 19 on the east.
When contacted Sunday, Ron Wolf said he hadn't heard that the county had zeroed in on a different site, but he said that would not affect the plans to move forward with the rezoning at the marina. As for the site in the preserve, he told the Times, "What did I say from the very first time we talked? This is a concept that's good for this area."
Hernando Beach resident Forrest Bennett, who has led the opposition to the education center and rezoning at the marina, is now leading a letter-writing campaign to support the new site and keep the governor from axing the funding for the project.
The center "was a great concept in search of great site," Bennett said. "Intensive development on Shoal Line (Boulevard) would be disastrous, and that's why residents were so strongly opposed. Placing the center in the preserve on a lake with swimming and kayaking, accessed off Osowaw, is a fabulous idea."
Commissioner Diane Rowden said the preserve site would "definitely be a complement to Hernando Beach and a gateway to Hernando Beach" and that, with the change of sites, it would be "happening in the right place."
She said the project could be "this County Commission's legacy for what we've done for Hernando County."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.