BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County officials have taken the next steps toward building the proposed Nature Coast Education and Tourism Center at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
County officials met earlier this month with a state park planner to begin discussions of how to mesh the county's mission to lure tourists and connect them with nature-based activities with the operation of the state park.
After the meeting, County Administrator Len Sossamon sent a formal proposal describing aspects of the center's displays and facility features, a tentative budget breakdown for the $6 million project and a time line that shows construction could begin in mid 2016 and be completed by August 2017. The proposal was sent to the state's Office of Economic Opportunity.
Hernando County tourism coordinator Tammy Heon said the meeting with the state went well.
"Basically their concern was to make sure that what we have is in line with what the park's mission was,'' Heon said. "I do not see that as a stumbling block.''
Sossamon's memo describes the need for the facility and its purpose.
"Our visitors and residents alike have shown us they have a great desire to know more about our shorelines, springs and natural resources," he wrote. "Construction of this facility, on the outskirts of a premier preserve and adjacent to a Hernando County landmark, will provide the opportunity to teach people in a fun and engaging way.''
The memo describes a 2,400-square-foot environmental education and tourism display area with separate displays for each of the county's ecosystems — springs, forests, marsh, rivers, reefs and ocean.
Under the category of "reefs," the listing notes: "Needs local fish and plant life as well as a map of our offshore reefs." Under "springs," the notation is: "Needs bubbling water and the details on Weeki Wachee Springs."
An aquarium with local shellfish, stone crabs and scallops, and a display of the underground features in the area, including the Weeki Wachee caves, would also be included.
The displays would highlight areas of critical importance and include videos and slide shows. Those might detail local animals and provide information about local efforts to protect and restore the habitat.
Another display could be a large interactive map showing locations and information about the county's natural assets. That might include a way to scan or download information to a smartphone or tablet.
The proposal also describes other plans for the center, including three 160-square-foot offices for tourism staffers and a 120-seat auditorium that could be used for meetings, festivals, classes and fundraisers.
The center would also serve as the trail head for the state park trail and provide restrooms for trail users. In total, the building would be approximately 6,900 square feet, which would require 50 additional parking spaces.
Parking lot improvements would cost approximately $350,000, according to the proposed budget. Improvements to U.S. 19 and on-site land development would run another $830,000, and the construction budget is an estimated $3.75 million. The budget for equipment and furnishings would be $1.12 million.
The state contributed $3 million for the project, and the county has agreed to match that, although a source for the county money has not yet been determined.
Under the proposed time line, the concept and state approval process would be finished by December, as would a business plan. If the state park site falls through, the county likely would consider sites at the nearby Weekiwachee Preserve, though previous discussions about placing the center in the preserve sparked public opposition, as did the original plan — to include the center as part of an expansion of Blue Pelican Marina in Hernando Beach.
The plans for the preserve included development of a man-made beach on the old lakes left behind from mining decades ago. The beach is not included in the new plan for the state park.
Heon said the next step will be to provide more detail about the center to state park officials. The theme will remain the same, she said, "to provide a solid experience that explains our environment and what makes it so special.''