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Outcry kills Fort De Soto plans

Forget all those big plans for Fort De Soto Park.

No 225-seat restaurant. No bait and tackle shop at the boat ramp. No beer sales or ice cream cart.

After being deluged by more than 1,000 telephone calls and e-mails, Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to drop the expansion.

Instead, the county will seek bids from companies to run the park's existing concessions.

"It was a pretty darn clear mandate to back off," County Commissioner Bob Stewart said of the outcry. "The public spoke, and we heard them, and that's the way it's going to be."

As opposition swelled in recent weeks, officials abandoned the proposed ideas for Fort De Soto, a 1,136-acre park home to a beach consistently named one of the best in the nation.

As the wave of calls and e-mails mounted, it became clear the county had to respond.

By the time the issue went before the commission Tuesday, county staff advised killing all of the controversial elements.

"I have not seen anything like that in the six years I have been here," said County Commission Chairman Ken Welch.

Those who had urged commissioners to abandon the plan did not have a chance to see it die. The matter was not on the commission's agenda.

County Administrator Steve Spratt said the aim of the park plan was always to provide new, better services, without spoiling Fort De Soto's unusual beauty.

Some thought a trolley service would cut down on traffic and emissions, he said.

And the restaurant, to be housed in an existing building where another restaurant operated in the 1960s and '70s, would simply have been a place to enjoy seafood and a glass of wine, he said.

Spratt said Times columnist Howard Troxler, who had urged readers to contact county leaders to be heard on the issue, had inflamed emotions and distorted the county's plan for Fort De Soto.

He said the county did a good job on the proposal to bring new amenities to the park.

"What happened is you had a columnist who just wanted to tug at an issue," Spratt said. "I can't predict when a columnist is going to pick on a campaign."

Stewart had another view, saying the county needs to do a "better job of communicating intentions and trying to figure out what the public desire, or will, is."

Many county leaders, including Spratt, expressed thanks to the members of the public who had weighed in.

County Commissioner Calvin Harris took the sentiment a step further, saying abandoning the park plan proved that it's not only the connected and the powerful who have sway.

"The system does work," Harris said. "We do read e-mails and respond. Everybody has access to us, not only an elite few."

Though the expanded concession plan is no more, county leaders do intend to tear down a store that serves Fort De Soto's campground.

They say it's falling apart, and they promise the new one will be only large enough to meet visitor demand.

Will Van Sant can be reached at 445-4166 or vansant@spttmes.com.

FORT DE SOTO PARK

+ Opened Dec. 21, 1962.

+ Its five interconnected islands total 1,136 acres, making it Pinellas County's largest park.

+ Draws more than 2.7-million visitors annually.

+ Named America's best beach for 2005 by Dr. Stephen Leatherman, better known as "Dr. Beach."

Source: Pinellas County Parks Department

ON THE WEB

What do you think of the Pinellas commission's final decision? Sound off at itsyourtimes.com.

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