The proposed Nature Coast Experience is moving up the road, but its departure from the center of the Weekiwachee Preserve likely kills plans for one of its most favorable attributes — a lakeside beach park. Still, the opportunity to cooperate with the state park system is worthwhile and gives the county a chance to enhance its most notable tourist attraction, the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
This week, Hernando commissioners pulled the plug on putting a proposed environmental/tourism center in the middle of the state-owned preserve, and opted instead to investigate a partnership with the state park known for mermaids, the Buccaneer Bay water slides and cool spring water. The state park's location at U.S. 19 and State Road 50 offers better access, higher visibility and the ability to piggyback on an existing and successful attraction. As a second choice, commissioners agreed to consider an alternative location for the center at the southern edge of the preserve off Osowaw Boulevard.
The desire for flexibility is understandable, but it's clear a commission majority wants to leave the preserve undisturbed after earlier town hall meetings on the tourism project brought near unanimous dissent from more than two dozen nearby residents, environmental activists and former state water district officials.
Moving the proposed center, for which the county is to receive a $3 million state grant, to the state park answers concerns about potential environmental degradation at the preserve. However, it severely diminishes the recreational aspects of the so-called Nature Coast Experience. Had it stayed in the preserve, the project would have boosted public access to the coral blue lakes left behind by a former mining operation. In that regard, the change is unfortunate considering the dearth of public swimming sites in the county.
Public suggestions to build a pool at the recently acquired Lake House property in Spring Hill fail to acknowledge the expense of starting from scratch with just local dollars. The city of New Port Richey, for instance, spent $14 million last decade to rebuild its aquatic and recreation center, a price 50 percent higher than the original projections. It's an exorbitant expense in a county that routinely gave short shrift to its parks and recreation budgets over the past half-dozen years.
Despite the drawbacks, a proposed partnership makes sense. It could allow the state park to accelerate development of its own $9 million master plan, and potentially remove a pricey stumbling block to the county's project — finding $3 million in local dollars required to draw down the state grant. Additionally, tapping the state's expertise could help resolve unanswered questions stemming from the county's lack of a business plan and feasibility study for its project.
Last year, 270,000 visitors entered Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, so the commission is right to try to capitalize on an existing tourist draw. Still, county and state officials shouldn't abandon entirely the idea of taking better advantage of the lakes inside the publicly owned Weekiwachee Preserve. Nobody ever said the Nature Coast Experience had to be experienced in a single location.