Florida always has been a developer's dream, so much so that nary a wetland or open space is safe from cash-register-ringing visions of poured concrete and strip malls. But surely the state of Florida can just say no when a developer seeks pristine government conservation land to build a multipurpose complex of shops, hotels, condos and — for good measure — a questionable marine mammal rescue center atop the fragile ecosystem at the southern end of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Florida needs more jobs, but not the kind that require its citizens to hand over irreplaceable, shared natural resources for a scheme of dubious potential.
Called Skyway Preserve, the proposed development near the bridge's southern tollbooth would require the state to agree to swap 77 acres in the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve for 998 acres of mostly watery marsh held by the developers — who include Tampa land-use lawyer David Smolker and Pasco County native plant nursery owner Brightman Logan.
Skyway Preserve, in its proposal filed with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, has not provided details of how the project would be financed or how much environmentally damaging dredge-and-fill work would be required to construct buildings and roads on what is now mangrove hammocks and shallow-bottom sea grass beds. And its scheme to develop what it claims would be the "world's largest" long-term care facility for dolphins, whales, manatees and sea turtles seems more like classic developer feel-good marketing than sincere environmental commitment.
Even marine conservation officials note there is no pressing need for additional facilities to care for injured or sick marine mammals. And the nonprofit group the developer is proposing to partner with, Embassy Blue, is an arm of Ocean Embassy, an outfit with a less than stellar track record. It includes being involved in an operation that captured wild Pacific dolphins and sold them to a Dubai hotel, as well as an aborted effort to capture wild dolphins for display in a failed Panamanian resort project.
The only thing the project may have going for it — if it ever got off the ground — is jobs: an estimated 1,500 temporary and 700 permanent jobs. Yet surely DEP, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet (which would have to approve the land swap) see that one potential positive doesn't come close to balancing the proposal's negatives: foggy finances, environmental damage, a dubious marine rescue center tied to a tainted operator and increased bridge traffic. The state is being asked to turn over 77 acres of taxpayer-owned aquatic preserve that would be lost forever to a shovel, sacrificing one of Tampa Bay's ecological treasures. It's just not worth it.