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Attendance on rise at Brooker Creek Preserve

Even if you're too lazy to venture out on the more than 4 miles of hiking trails or crawl through the exhibit hall's giant gopher tortoise burrow, the Brooker Creek Preserve Environmental Education Center has activities for you.

Sink into a rustic rocker in the exhibit hall and watch for wildlife beyond the walls of windows. When the theater show starts, grab a bench in the old Brooker barn and listen as projected figures decide the family ranch is too precious for development. Or slip into the nature library.

The three-building education center opened in 2004 with boardwalks, an exhibit hall, a classroom building and an auditorium with space for art exhibits.

But as varied as the choices are at the $10.8-million facility, an audit released by the county's Internal Audit Division on Nov. 16 says attendance at the center has been much less than predicted or than reasonably attainable.

A consultant had predicted 68,700 to 116,000 visitors annually. The audit estimated that 31,000 to 32,000 annual visitors would be reasonably attainable, based on comparisons to other similarly sized nature centers.

But actual visitors in the center's first seven months averaged a yearly rate of about 18,000 to 19,000.

Part of the shortfall may be due to the newness of the center. But a large part of it, the audit says, was because the county lacked an adequate marketing plan.

An audit of the Weedon Island Preserve completed by the County's Internal Audit Division in March 2006 had similar findings concerning utilization of the facilities there through September 2004. The audit noted the lack of a formal marketing plan for activities and events.

County officials say much has changed since the audit periods ended a year ago for the Brooker Creek Preserve Environmental Education Center and more than two years ago for the Weedon Island Preserve. They say their marketing efforts are jelling and attendance is slowly climbing.

"The trend is up, so all is not lost," said Andy Squires, assistant director of the county's Department of Environmental Management. "Our programs are getting better organized and we have been building our staff."

At the Brooker Creek Preserve facility, he said attendance was up to 22,627 visitors in 2005. And in 2006, attendance in the first 11 months was at 23,987. And the Department of Environmental Management marketing budget for fiscal year 2007 is $38,980, much more than the $22,000 the department spent in fiscal year 2006.

Bruce Rinker, director of Environmental Lands Division, who is responsible for both the Brooker Creek and Weedon Island preserves, said he expects attendance to increase as programs are further developed and the experience continues to improve with new interpretive signs on the trails at both preserves.

"Down the road, we might very well have to worry about the carrying capacity of our centers," he said in an e-mail. "Something that occurs now during special events like the Clyde Butcher photography show at Weedon Island Preserve."

School groups are discovering the Brooker Creek Preserve as staff members train more teachers on the ecosystems and on using the facility.

The county communications department is making an effort to get the word out in the Tampa Bay area in various publications and through the county Web site.

But local hotels like the Sheraton Sand Key Resort and a Hilton Resort Clearwater Beach say they send few visitors that way. A concierge at the Hilton had never heard of the Weedon Island Preserve.

"If somebody comes down here to enjoy the sunshine," said concierge Sandor Ozsvath, "they are mostly interested in the beach."

The Clearwater visitor centers carry a Brooker Creek Preserve Environmental Education Center brochure and will send nature lovers all the way to Crystal River to see the manatees.

"People today are pretty mobile," said Paul Dalton, manager at the Clearwater Beach Visitor Center, "especially if they are from Europe."

Times staff writer Theresa Blackwell can be reached at or 445-4170.