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Weeki Wachee on track to be state park

WEEKI WACHEE — The mermaids are back on track to becoming state employees.

Legislators approved language that allows for the state Department of Environmental Protection to continue with a takeover of the Weeki Wachee Springs attraction. The proposal, however, can still be vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Once operating costs are determined, the measure allows the DEP to return to the Legislature and ask for what it thinks it will take to operate Weeki Wachee as a state park.

"We're happy that the process is moving forward," attraction spokesman John Athanason said. "And that we're on track to becoming a state park in November. But we're not in the clear yet."

Late last week, the House had not supported recommendations to finance the takeover. With the Legislative session in its final days, worried Weeki Wachee officials — including a park lobbyist in Tallahassee — scrambled to remind legislators that the park would be an asset to the state.

State Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Brooksville, and Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, also pledged support for the 60-year-old mermaid attraction to become the state's 162nd park.

On Tuesday, DEP spokeswoman Katie Flanagan said the agency has been working with the attraction to determine just what park operations total. That includes going over financial books and accounts.

"We're going to use that information to request budget authority to operate Weeki Wachee Springs," she said.

All along, Weeki Wachee officials have been saying the attraction wouldn't be a financial burden to the state. "This park makes a profit," Athanason said.

In February, both sides sat down to a ceremonial signing in the attraction's famous mermaid theater. It was the culmination of months of court-ordered mediation between the DEP, Weeki Wachee and its landlord, the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

It also ended a four-year legal battle between the attraction and the water district. All sides approved the agreement in January.

Under the deal, the DEP would buy the attraction for $10. Until Nov. 1, Weeki Wachee will continue to operate under its lease with Swiftmud.

The DEP also promised to keep as many of the attraction's 200 employees as possible, hiring them under comparable terms and conditions.

Though it took a lot of time and effort, Schenck said he believes Weeki Wachee will be better off as a state park.

"I think they'll thrive under the new system," he said, "and I'm pretty excited that we're going to be able to get it done."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1432.

Weeki Wachee on track to be state park 04/29/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2008 2:21pm]
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