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WEEKI WACHEE SPRINGS, PRICELESS; ATTRACTION, $10

Weeki Wachee, Swiftmud and DEP reach agreement on employment and rent issues.

On Nov. 1, Weeki Wachee Springs will become Weeki Wachee State Park.

Southwest Florida Water Management board members unanimously approved agreements that will end its four-year fight with the Hernando County attraction while transferring the mermaids into the hands of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The decision came Tuesday afternoon during the board's monthly meeting at headquarters in Brooksville.

"This has been a long time coming," said Judy Whitehead, Swiftmud chairwoman. "But as a local Hernando County resident, no one could be more thrilled than I am."

The two agreements - one between Weeki Wachee and its landlord, Swiftmud, the other between Weeki Wachee and DEP - are the result of a recent round of court-ordered mediation among all three parties.

Late last week, DEP and attraction officials met in Tallahassee to finalize a tentative contract to make the mermaids and other park employees state workers.

Details released Tuesday show DEP will buy the attraction for $10. Until Nov. 1, Weeki Wachee will continue to operate under its lease with Swiftmud. The water district will then begin a new lease with DEP.

The DEP also promised to "use its best efforts" to keep all of the 200 current Weeki Wachee employees hired under comparable terms and conditions. That includes making "key employees," such as Weeki Wachee mayor, general manager and former mermaid Robyn Anderson, an assistant park manager.

The agreement also stipulates that spokesman John Athanason and two other administrative staff, along with the park's operations manager, will also stay on the state payroll. DEP will also try to keep all the mermaids and pay them accordingly.

Three of the four people who live in houses and cottages on the 27-acre attraction property will have until 2010 to vacate. Until then, they will continue to live rent free.

Along with Athanason, who can live there as long as he's a park employee, the residents also include Angela Weiss, Anderson's mother.

Pleased that Swiftmud approved the agreements, Athanason said that keeping employees was a big concern for Anderson. It's unclear how much the Legislature will budget for the newest Florida park.

"We didn't like the 'best efforts' wording, but we know that (DEP) can't guarantee anything they have no control over," he said.

As a result of the DEP contract, Swiftmud agreed to drop its suit against the attraction. Among other issues, the water district questioned whether the city of Weeki Wachee could own and operate the attraction.

In 2001, Swiftmud bought the land beneath the attraction. The city owns the company that leases the land from the state, and owns and operates the park.

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com, or (352) 848-1432.

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