BROOKSVILLE — When Hernando County got word early this week that Gov. Rick Scott had approved $3 million for the construction of the Nature Coast education and tourism center, the staff was ready to jump into the project.
The center, which is planned for a location inside the Weekiwachee Preserve, will still require numerous steps before final approval. But county officials didn't want to waste any time, said county Commissioner Nick Nicholson.
The county will prepare a request for qualifications for an engineer in the next 60 days and county staff will work on plans to upgrade the entrance road and bring utilities to the site. The in-house work will speed up the process, Nicholson said, and the hope is to have the facility mostly done within a year.
The center is planned for a site inside the Weekiwachee Preserve that had previously been mined. At the same site, the county is also planning a 20-acre beach on lakes left behind by the mining operation, in addition to developing other recreational activities such as canoeing, kayaking and fishing.
"This is a golden opportunity for us to showcase a portion of the county that is rarely seen,'' said County Administrator Len Sossamon. "We're excited."
At a commission meeting late last month when the board approved the Weekiwachee Preserve location, commissioners also asked for a conceptual idea of how the site might be developed. The staff is working on that, Sossamon said.
That process will also get some help from local conservation groups and from the public.
Two open meetings are planned next week on Wednesday and Thursday, one in Hernando Beach and one in Brooksville, to discuss ideas on how to develop the center.
Ultimately the project will face review by the Southwest Florida Water Management District Governing Board. The county staff will also have to find $3 million in matching dollars to make the center work. About a third of that might come from the settlement the county received on the Hernando Beach Channel dredging project lawsuit, Nicholson said.
Commissioner Diane Rowden said she was grateful to the governor and legislators for awarding the state funds for the project and "for giving Hernando County the opportunity to expand tourism and ecotourism as in our strategic plan.''
The community also wrote letters supporting the funding for the preserve site.
"The environmental education center was a great concept in search of a great site,'' said Forrest Bennett, who organized the letter-writing campaign. "The center at this location will be a fabulous asset for all residents for decades to come.''