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Failure of Hernando's Nature Coast tourism center has lessons

HERNANDO BEACH — Hernando County Administrator Len Sossamon wanted it to be the centerpiece of what he called "the Nature Coast experience."

But after 10 months of controversy and changes in direction, none of which caught on, the Nature Coast Education and Tourism Center ended up more like the "brilliant blunder," as one critic called it during the debate.

Earlier this month, a unanimous County Commission voted to tell the state to keep the $3 million the Legislature had allocated for the project last spring. That allows the county to keep the $3 million in local funds it had promised as a match.

What happened? There were several factors, those involved say, and plenty of lessons to be learned from the experience.

"It turns out that not everyone thought it was a great idea, for various reasons,'' Sossamon said. "For some, it was environmental reasons, and for others, economic and financial reasons.''

Figuring that tourism was Florida's No. 1 business, he said, "it just looked like an opportunity to me to provide the citizens of Hernando County a new venue for tourism and recreation.''

One of the early plans included a beach, and Sossamon noted that large-scale beaches aren't available to the community now. Still, he said, "unfortunately maybe we didn't think far enough ahead in terms of how the public … would perceive it.''

Originally proposed to be part of a controversial rezoning at Blue Pelican Marina in Hernando Beach, the education center got stripped from the Shoal Line Boulevard location in a public hearing. Then it was proposed for the Weekiwachee Preserve, followed by the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and finally for an east-side location at Interstate 75 and State Road 50 before landing back beside the preserve on the old Hernando Beach water tower site owned by the county.

Commissioner Diane Rowden favored the east Hernando location. Cost, both upfront and ongoing, was the big factor for commissioners Jim Adkins, Nick Nicholson and Jeff Holcomb.

"I think the lesson here is to be able to do as much research as possible prior to making requests of our state legislators. We should do our best to have location, plans and costs defined as best we can,'' Holcomb said.

Commissioner Wayne Dukes told the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association last week that he saw the decision to send the money back as "an opportunity lost,'' but noted that he voted with the rest of commissioners, "rather than showing disharmony on the board."

Dukes' business relationship with the marina owner and his admissions of working with him for months before the rezoning on an overall vision for improvements in Hernando Beach earned him sharp criticism from neighbors opposed to the rezoning.

Hernando Beach resident Jude Simpson said that giving the money back was the right move.

The project was "vague and undefined in the beginning, and there was no community input in the planning stages,'' she noted.

The awarding of the funding was also not transparent, she said, and "no one familiar with the coastal environment would have ever put it in the filled wetlands'' at Blue Pelican Marina.

Simpson and dozens of others also opposed placing the center in the Weekiwachee Preserve.

"It was definitely over the top in its design, and there was a lack of understanding and a lack of appreciation of the type of environment it was supposed to educate people about,'' Simpson said.

"This was the worst kind of Tallahassee pork barrel project. It was unrequested, unneeded and would have artificially accelerated the damage to the environment and the Weekiwachee Preserve and destroyed the quality of life in unique, isolated and tranquil residential Hernando Beach,'' said Forrest Bennett, who rallied hundreds of his neighbors to write letters and pack a half-dozen public meetings on the topic.

"Rule No. 1 is, you don't protect the environment by crassly exploiting it," said Bennett, formerly a member of the county's Environmentally Sensitive Lands Committee. "Artificially created industrial tourism leads to the decline of the very thing the county was claiming to embrace.''

Ron Wolf, brother of Blue Pelican Marina owner Gordon Wolf, was disgusted with the county's decisions on the education center placement.

"It's just the nature of this county,'' he said, calling local politicians "wishy-washy" and criticizing them for making a decision based on the opinions of vocal critics.

"The majority of the people were in favor of moving Hernando Beach ahead. There were just half a dozen bent against it. … They just get off on making trouble,'' Wolf said. "The whole thing is just sad. Giving the money back is sad. No nature center is sad. It's just a sad, sad story.''

Tammy Heon, the county's tourism coordinator, expressed disappointment that the education and tourism center wasn't going to happen, but said the county will find "a different track'' to provide environmental education.

As for the reasons the Nature Coast Education and Tourism Center failed, Heon said, "The location was 99 percent of the issue. The ticking clock (for spending the money) was definitely part of the challenge. A $6 million project doesn't happen overnight.''

She said that commissioners did their job.

"I think the commission voted the will of the community,'' Heon said. "They listened to their constituents. You can't fault them for that.''

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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