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Hernando shouldn't bank on rock mining for its economic future

The tall berms that hide rock mining in Hernando County, a government-imposed regulation, actually do the mines a big favor: Very few people see how bad they really are.

Trees, grass, topsoil, everything alive, is stripped away to get to the rock. West Virginia coal mines do mountaintop removal. Florida rock mines do ridge removal, because that's where the best rock is.

And, as has been shown by the few feeble, local efforts, reclamation should not be confused with restoration.

Even Brooksville lawyer Joe Mason — one of the powerful landowners who have revived their 3-year-old request to lease several hundred acres of land for rock mining — says there are lines to be drawn when it comes to mining.

Nobody's greedily rubbing his hands at the thought of bulldozers ripping apart downtown Brooksville or Chinsegut Hill, probably the two biggest and best reserves of hard rock in the county. They're too valuable, he said, too important to what the county is all about.

I'd say the same for the site of this proposed mine, west of Brooksville and across from Bayfront Health Brooksville.

Wednesday's public meeting to discuss the plan will no doubt draw lots of neighbors, worried about what it will do to their corner of the county.

It should draw people from all over, worried about what it will do to the economic future of the county — or, really, whether Hernando even wants to move on to the future.

This county is working hard and investing a lot of its money, and much more of the state's, to make itself over as a recreation and tourist destination.

Think of the $1.5 million for renovating the Chinsegut manor house, the $7 million plans for an environmental education center in Hernando Beach, $8.7 million worth of upgrades at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

And then, at the western gateway to Brooksville, the town that could and should be at the heart of all this emphasis on history and beauty, we're thinking about installing a wasteland — hidden, of course, behind woods or berms (and maybe stores and houses, because the owners want to keep some land for commercial and residential development).

But isn't mining a big source of jobs for the community? Not really. Not anymore.

The industry employs 69 people in Hernando, according to the most recent statistics available from the state Department of Economic Opportunity. Adding this land isn't about adding jobs; it won't expand the operation, but give it more years of life.

That came from an official from the company during a 2011 meeting to talk about the old plan. That company, by the way, is the giant Mexican firm Cemex, meaning the proceeds won't stay in the county, except for lease payments going to the likes of Mason and retired mining executive Tommy Bronson, who owns the most of the property.

And that future source of jobs, in arts, entertainment and recreation? Actually, it's already a bigger part of the present than mining, with more than 500 employees, according to the state. That doesn't include more than 5,000 people employed by businesses such as motels and restaurants, a sector that will grow right along with the tourism industry.

Or won't grow, if we don't draw the right lines for the right land uses in the right places.