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Weeki Wachee purchase stuck in the House

Advocates for selling the Weeki Wachee Springs attraction are trying to convince lawmakers it’s not a budget drag.

DANNY GHITIS | Times

Advocates for selling the Weeki Wachee Springs attraction are trying to convince lawmakers it’s not a budget drag.

WEEKI WACHEE — A tight budget year might keep the Weeki Wachee mermaids from becoming state park employees.

On Tuesday, the House had yet to approve recommendations to fund the Department of Environmental Protection's takeover of the Weeki Wachee Springs attraction.

That has left the issue stuck in budget conference committee talks during these final days of the legislative session, said Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Brooksville.

"I would say I'm cautiously optimistic that we will fund DEP's recommendation, or at least a portion of it," Schenck said. "It's a conference issue, and I've been working on trying to get the House to confirm it."

But to frazzled Weeki Wachee officials, the lack of progress could mean that a momentous deal between the attraction, landlord Southwest Florida Water Management District and the DEP might be dead.

"Our lobbyist in Tallahassee has been feverishly working to explain to the House and Senate that (the attraction) is a money-making operation for the state," said park spokesman John Athanason. "I don't think anyone anticipated this happening."

Lobbyist Dale Adams, who also previously worked for the DEP, said that most officials he has spoken to in Tallahassee seem to support Weeki Wachee becoming a state park.

"But given the current budget issues, I think Weeki Wachee is getting lost with a lot of others," Adams said. "People are not looking to fund new things."

Weeki Wachee officials think the 60-year-old tourist attraction will be anything but a drain to the state. After years of neglect, debt and legal orders, park officials said it recently started to make money.

"We're going to be an asset," Athanason said.

A ceremonial signing in February was the culmination of months of court-ordered mediation between the DEP, the attraction and Swiftmud.

It also ended a four-year legal battle between Weeki Wachee 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 the water management district.

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

Greg Giordano, spokesman for Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said that the senator would make sure to advocate for the "very important park."

And even with a looming deadline, Schenck said he was confident that the state takeover would happen.

"I think we can count on it becoming a state park in November," he said. "It could be just a matter of staffing levels. But we're trying to make it happen."

At a depth of 403 feet, Weeki Wachee Springs is considered the deepest spring in the United States. Since 1947, the mermaids have performed their underwater ballet while breathing from air hoses.

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

Weeki Wachee purchase stuck in the House 04/22/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 24, 2008 6:13pm]
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