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TALE OF TWO VISIONS // Behind the De Soto debacle

Pinellas County's move to expand concessions at Fort De Soto Park died a sudden death last week after residents raised a full-throated outcry.

The County Commission office was swamped with more than 1,000 telephone calls and e-mails within a week. Some commissioners said the outpouring topped any in memory.

While the Fort De Soto plan shocked some, it was rooted in a yearslong effort to expand county park services and to open public land to moneymaking ventures that offset operating costs.

"It wasn't like we sat around one night and said, yeah, let's do this," said assistant county administrator Jake Stowers, after the commissioners' decision.

"It was a thought-out process. And quite honestly, I guess we misjudged some of the feeling in the community."

Stowers said the county began a park system review in 2001, hiring a consultant and holding 11 workshops to determine what the public wanted in its parks.

By June 2005, the county had assembled a master plan that Stowers said reflected comments from the workshops. The plan called for "energizing" parks such as Fort De Soto with outdoor concerts, cafes and art exhibits.

While developing the master plan, the county brought in another consultant to explore the moneymaking potential of increasing park concessions. And in May the county hired Front Row Marketing Services to identify county assets ripe for marketing.

Municipal marketing is that firm's specialty - think of a shoe company such as Nike paying to sponsor a stretch of the Pinellas Trail. The park system, and Fort De Soto in particular, struck the firm as a place rich with marketing possibility.

Enlisting private companies to boost services at public parks is nothing new, said Paul Cozzie, Pinellas' parks and recreation director.

"That has been a trend going on for many years," Cozzie said last week. "Call it commercialization, call it privatization. People are looking for certain amenities they didn't see 20 years ago."

The county's effort has led to some modest park changes, none of which produced the kind of public anger that killed the Fort De Soto plan:

+ In August 2004, the county struck a deal with a private concessionaire at Sand Key Park. The vendor sells suntan lotion, snacks, soda and beach umbrellas. The county gets a piece of the proceeds, which vary greatly from month to month.

Pinellas' take hit a high of $3,990 in May.

+ In August, a private company began renting canoes and kayaks at Weedon Island Preserve. The county took in $758 from that venture in October, the most profitable month to date.

These operations have little impact on Pinellas' $1.7-billion budget. But county leaders see them as a way to give residents more park services while defraying taxpayer costs.

Seven months ago, the county began soliciting bids to handle concessions at Fort De Soto. The Apostolu family has had the contract since 1976. Twenty-nine-year old Jody Apostolu, who took over the job from his father, runs a camp store, a bait and tackle shop, two snack bars and a larger food concession and gift shop.

Last year, the Apostolu operation brought in more than $146,000 for Pinellas.

When it sought a concessionaire last year, the county wanted companies to bid not only on running the existing services but also to offer a vision of more.

In December, the county chose Hollywood Promotions of Dania Beach. The company proposed a new bait and tackle shop, beer sales, a restaurant with seating for 225, an ice cream cart and a trolley service.

Hollywood Promotions also suggested marketing trips to Fort De Soto at area hotels and creating a low-frequency radio station for announcements about upcoming park events.

Stowers and other county leaders blamed the news media for distorting what Hollywood had in mind. No contract had been signed, he said, and there was no way the county would have approved all of what Hollywood proposed.

However, Stowers said the county could have done a better job of defining for the public what it hoped to accomplish at Fort De Soto.

"It's part and parcel our fault because we didn't get the information out well," Stowers said. "The rumor mill took over."

St. Petersburg environmentalist Lorraine Margeson helped rouse the opposition. She said the county failed to understand how precious unspoiled land in development-heavy Pinellas is to residents.

Some plan advocates said embracing Hollywood's ideas would have little impact on the park, whose 1,136 acres are home to a beach ranked the best in the nation last year. Margeson finds that laughable.

"I'm sorry, but that is just such baloney," she said. "These were not modest improvements."

The county is now negotiating with Pepsi, Pinellas' official soft drink, about expanding the number of soda machines at parks. The arrangement could be worth $3.2-million to the county over 10 years.

Other than the Pepsi deal, county officials say there are no plans to allow private businesses to operate in parks. They are not backing away from the concept, however - the current concessions at Fort DeSoto will be offered for the time being - but officials say they will act cautiously after the Fort De Soto plan backlash.

"It will be on our minds," Stowers said.

Margeson, 49, said the incident ignited public concern for the welfare of the park system and convinced residents that they can influence county policy. She plans to build on what she called a victory for the people of Pinellas.

"I'm an official watchdog," she said. "There are places the county has to preserve to protect the sanity of the people that live here."

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

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