Sunday, May 27, 2018
Opinion

Dump the tourism center, keep the beach at Weekiwachee Preserve

Forget about the "sports field."

I have no idea why this vaguely ball field-shaped blob showed up on the county plan for a park in the Weekiwachee Preserve, but it clearly doesn't belong.

The county can also scrap the educational plaza. Or tourism center. Or, as I've also heard it called, visitors center.

That it has so many different names is a sign that nobody really knew what it was supposed to be before securing $3 million in state money for this project and pledging an equal amount of the county's cash. Nobody apparently considered that it sure is a lot like the $1.5 million museum and interpretive center that actually was planned — rather than dreamed up — as part of the $8.7 million of improvements at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

So scratch those things off the plans for the preserve. Do away with two of the three playgrounds. Get rid of at least a half-dozen of the 14 pavilions, the rooftops of which give the map of the proposed "Beach Park" at the preserve the look of a low-density housing development.

Make the parking lots more compact so they don't encroach on a wading bird rookery or the site of an ongoing sparrow study.

Do all those things and then keep the one essential component of a beach park — the beach.

To be clear, something very welcome happened two weeks ago, when the county asked for opinions about its plan for the preserve.

Environmentalists showed up. Qualified environmentalists. Committed birders and former public employees who had helped acquire or manage the preserve for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

They reminded the county of the obvious: that the main purpose of a preserve is preserving habitat.

But it can serve another purpose, too, especially one as pressing as recreation is in this county.

Pan out from the narrow, admirable focus on bears and birds to include all of the neighborhoods in western Hernando County, with kids whiling away their summers in front of video screens.

I don't blame them. Not entirely. Because if you're a teenager in Spring Hill and say there's nothing to do, you have a point.

You can swim in Rogers Park, at least when it's not closed due to fecal coliform contamination. Or you can go for a refreshing wade in the muck off Pine Island. Or take a trip to Buccaneer Bay, at Weeki Wachee, though even the bargain price of a season pass might be a little bit pricey for, say, the people in the Spring Hill census tract closest to the preserve. The average household income there in 2010 was $15,000 lower than in the state as a whole.

What you cannot do if you're a teenager in Hernando is hang out at a public swimming pool. There are two in Citrus County, three in Pasco and, of course, none here.

Maybe the access to this beach can be off Shoal Line Boulevard, near Hernando Beach, as was once planned. It would be better than nothing, but not, in my opinion, better than opening up the entrance on Osowaw, about a half-mile west of the Spring Hill waterfall.

If the county invests in a swimming area, it should be convenient for those bored teenagers, not to mention visitors driving up U.S. 19. And cutting down the length of car trips should be a major goal of any environmentalist.

Also, as can be seen at parks all over the state, the pattern of a road leading back into a natural area is hardly revolutionary.

It's especially appropriate in the Weekiwachee Preserve because much of the southern part of this natural area is not exactly pristine, not even natural.

An Osowaw entrance would lead through an old mine and to a beach on an old pit. It would cut out the mile-plus walk on a paved road that, with this entrance closed to cars, is required to reach the good parts of the preserve — the woods, the swamps, the nature.

Give kids a chance to explore it, to appreciate it.

As I'm sure those seasoned environmentalists realize, that's the best way to make new environmentalists.

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