The state's new master plan for Weeki Wachee Springs State Park calls for a nearly $9 million investment in the heritage and recreational components at the top tourism draw in Hernando County. The attention is welcome even though funding is unclear and local community leaders must not allow the state to just put these conceptual ideas on a shelf.
Successfully refurbishing the park's amenities means working to ensure the emphasis doesn't stay on long in this long-term plan. Local enthusiasts need only to look at the dawdling pace of state spending at Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park in neighboring Pasco County for what not to do. There, a main entrance on U.S. 19 in Port Richey didn't materialize until 11 years after the 4,000-acre preserve first opened, and just three years ago, the state Department of Environmental Protection listed Werner-Boyce as one of 53 parks across the state that could shut down as part of a $4 billion state budget shortfall.
The public deserves better, particularly at Weeki Wachee, which attracted more than 270,000 visitors last year to its mermaid shows, Buccaneer Bay water slides and cool spring water. Most importantly, the park has a volunteer organization, the Friends of Weeki Wachee Springs, that already has shown success in fundraising for improvements and which will play an integral part in raising public awareness and financing for the makeover. The master plan includes a new splash pool, pavilions, sidewalks, parking lot, interpretive center, and bathhouse/concession building but no time line for completion.
Getting design plans and a more concrete price estimate for perhaps the splash park or interpretive center is a logical first step to building public support, said Denise Tenuto, president of the Friends of Weeki Wachee Springs. She is right, but the work will stretch beyond the volunteer organization and should include Hernando County government.
The county administrator's strategic plan includes boosting tourism and capitalizing on the county's natural beauty even though some of his bosses on the County Commission have lamented land preservation efforts. It would be reasonable for the county to dedicate some future tourist tax proceeds toward Weeki Wachee or even for the park to benefit from a so-called infrastructure surcharge sales tax if the commission asks voters to consider a tax referendum this year. Just as appropriately, Tenuto said local supporters could seek state legislation to allow a portion of the park's entrance fees to be specifically earmarked for the construction projects rather than forwarded to Tallahassee for redistribution in the statewide parks budget. Or, local residents could lobby state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who sits on the Senate committee overseeing tourism spending, for a special appropriation in an upcoming state budget.
Certainly Weeki Wachee, which became one of Florida's 160 state parks in 2008, is a statewide asset and primary funding to the improvements should come from Tallahassee. But local partnerships will be vital to more quickly turn conceptual plans into construction projects to further enhance the park-going experience at Weeki Wachee Springs.