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Hernando Beach environmental education plaza sure looks like a turkey

Many Hernando Beach residents who live near the proposed site for an environmental education plaza are unhappy with the location of the project.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Many Hernando Beach residents who live near the proposed site for an environmental education plaza are unhappy with the location of the project.

The planned environmental education plaza in Hernando Beach would be a fine project, perfectly worthy of receiving $4 million in state funds, if not for a few small details.

Most of the neighbors hate it, for starters.

Plus, nobody seems to have bothered to check out the landowners the county has teamed up with, the ones having issues with code enforcement and their county tax bills.

Then there's the matter of open, honest discussion of this deal — as in there wasn't nearly enough of it.

Its first scheduled airing before a county board, in April, didn't come until more than three months after the county sent an email to its lobbyist that included a thorough description of the plaza.

Up in Tallahassee, it was a minnow in the public realm, first appearing as a $1 million item in the budget of a House of Representatives subcommittee and listed as a $200,000 project on the Senate side.

It was only in the offices of legislative leaders — where the influence behind a project counts for more than its merits — that it grew into a $4 million whopper.

We don't know for sure whether it is also a turkey, or, more accurately, whether it will be considered one by the only person whose opinion really matters. Gov. Rick Scott will decide soon, maybe even late this week, whether the plaza is among the projects he vetoes. Entering into his decision, apparently, will be a last-minute pledge of $3 million in matching funds from the county.

What we do know is that this is not the best way for the county to seek Hernando's largest special appropriation from the state in recent memory; it's not the fairest method of determining how the state should spend its money.

I'm not rooting for a veto, by the way. I'm selfish and parochial. And even if we don't, strictly speaking, need this plaza, it would be a nice bonus. We could certainly use such a facility in the right place and in the right form.

But it's not right, and that's partly because of the way this project and its funding was pushed through.

Last year, the county started talking to the owners of Blue Pelican Marina about straightening out the awkward turn at the nearby corner of Calienta Street and Shoal Line Boulevard, said County Administrator Len Sossamon. The plans progressed from there.

Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes, who lives in Hernando Beach, was in on the discussions, he told Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt in April, though we don't know what he contributed, or when, because now he's not returning phone calls about it.

Neither is state Rep. Rob Schenck, as usual. But as the main mover of this project, Schenck, I'm sure, was included either before or shortly after the county included it in the January email to its lobbyist, Southern Strategy Group.

The email not only proves that plans were formed early, but also disproves the claim you might have heard from backpedaling advocates — that the project was not "site specific."

The funding isn't, fortunately. But the plans clearly show the visitors center, theater and outdoor stage snuggly situated among additional parking and space for private development on the marina land; it's about as site specific as a molar.

True, not every legislative gift needs public approval. In fact, the surprise can be part of the fun. But, then again, not all of them have the potential to disrupt entire neighborhoods.

So check to see if nearby residents are on board. Do it early enough to make changes so that they are.

After all, a project with public support looks a lot less like a turkey than one without it.

And with enough time to really consider alternate sites, you could pick one that is already an established, easily accessible draw, and then argue that it's not just a local project but a regional one.

Also, put it on the state budget in the full amount from the start. Yes, maybe the funding gets pared down; maybe the project is stripped of some of its fancy extras.

But maybe that's okay. Maybe you end up with a facility less focused on entertainment and more on its stated purpose: education.

And maybe then it wouldn't look quite so much — whether Scott sees it this way or not — like a big, fat turkey.

Hernando Beach environmental education plaza sure looks like a turkey 05/20/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 21, 2014 11:01am]
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