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Let's protect the spring and park's potential

The Southwest Florida Water Management District's latest proposal to rescue Hernando County's most famous attraction, Weeki Wachee Springs, has merit. But before the water district's governing board proceeds, residents need to be assured the overriding intent is to benefit the public, not the apparently cash-strapped private company that leases the recreation park.

The idea would allow Weeki Wachee Springs LLC to donate its 27-acre business to the city of Weeki Wachee. The water district, more commonly known as Swiftmud, has been shopping for some public entity to take over the park, and assume responsibility for sprucing up the facility, which has fallen into such disrepair that it could be dangerous to patrons. At least, that is the contention of Swiftmud, which is considering suing the company to correct the structural problems.

After the Hernando County Commission passed on the offer, Swiftmud officials suggested that the city of Weeki Wachee could run the park if Weeki Wachee LLC would turn it over. Profits of approximately $300,000 a year could be used to make the necessary repairs and perhaps broaden the park's appeal by updating its activities and its image.

The inducement for the private company is a tax write-off in the neighborhood of $1-million.

And that's where this deal becomes a tad murky.

For all intents and purposes, the city of Weeki Wachee exists in name only. Its 10 or so residents are all employees of Weeki Wachee LLC, and the mayor is the park's general manager and would bear the burden for sprucing up the park.

Critics of the idea worry that the transaction is little more than shuffling paper to accommodate Weeki Wachee LLC.

We acknowledge that concern, but also recognize the value in maintaining a beloved venue that not only provides recreation and entertainment for Hernando County residents, but draws visitors from much farther away.

The park, with a public owner, also has great potential as a learning tool. With the right vision, the public could be educated there about everything from manatees to black bears to the fragile ecosystem of the Weeki Wachee River. The park could be much more than water slides and gift shops.

Of course, the ultimate aim of any undertaking at Weeki Wachee must be to protect the integrity of the first-magnitude spring. That's why Swiftmud used your tax to buy it from the city of St. Petersburg two years ago, and nothing should supplant that guarantee.

Swiftmud's governing board should keep that, and the collective interest of those who would use the park, in mind as it ponders the possibility of the city of Weeki Wachee assuming control of the park.