1. News

Failure of Hernando's Nature Coast tourism center has lessons

Hernando Beach residents pack the County Commission chambers at the County Government Center in Brooksville on June 24, 2014 to protest the rezoning proposal to build the Nature Coast education and tourism center next to the Blue Pelican Marina along Shoal Line Boulevard in Hernando Beach.
Published Jan. 22, 2015

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 or (352) 848-1434.


  1. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor appears at a September forum on the Equal Rights Amendment at the Centre Club of Tampa. Her first budget was unanimously approved 7-0 by City Council. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Octavio Jones
    The mayor made some concessions in her $1.04 billion budget, especially to council member Orlando Gudes’ demands for East Tampa.
  2. Less than a month after being fired, former St. Petersburg Housing Authority CEO Tony Love wants the agency to give him a job running its development nonprofit at the same $157,000 salary. That offer, part of ongoing negotiations over his severance, was rejected by the agency's board.
    Tony Love’s attorney tells the agency that fired him he wants full salary and benefits through 2020. The board rejects his offer.
  3. John Jonchuck returned to a Pinellas County courtroom last month to attend a hearing about whether he was entitled to a new trial. A judge on Tuesday ruled that he is not. SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
    Jonchuck was convicted of first-degree murder in April. He dropped his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe Jonchuck, off a bridge in 2015.
  4. Ralph Lewis Wald and wife Johnna Lynn Flores leave the Orient Road Jail on May 30, 2013, after Wald was acquitted in the fatal shooting of his wife's lover. [TIMES (2013)]  |  Tampa Bay Times
    An unidentified woman is found dead at their Brandon house. At the same time, the medical examiner confirms the wife has died.
  5. The Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County identified a positive case of hepatitis A in a food service worker at Hamburger Mary's in Ybor City on Oct. 22, 2018. [JOSH FIALLO | Times] JOSH FIALLO | TIMES  |  JOSH FIALLO | Times
    Slightly more than 200,000 people have been vaccinated this year — a huge jump from the 49,324 people vaccinated in all of 2018.
  6. This satellite image shows Hurricane Michael on Oct. 9, 2018, as it enters the Gulf of Mexico. It made landfall near Mexico Beach in the Panhandle as a Category 5 storm. [Photo courtesy of NOAA] NOAA
    Nearly a year after the storm, 18,000 claims are still open.
  7. Falo Kane, 32, of Clearwater, faces four counts of sexual battery of a physically helpless person and a violation of probation charge, according to police. [CLEARWATER POLICE DEPARTMENT]  |  Clearwater Police Department
    There were four victims, police said. One was in a wheelchair and another was a disabled stroke patient. The accused wrote a letter of apology.
  8. An eighth-grade boy can be seen punching a seventh-grader in a locker room in this screenshot from a video taken inside a Polk County middle school. Twitter
    A black student was slammed to the floor and punched repeatedly by a white classmate following a physical education class last week at Blake Academy in Lakeland.
  9. Workers refuel the tank at a gas station in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. U.S. President Donald Trump declared Monday that it "looks" like Iran was behind the explosive attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities. He stressed that military retaliation was not yet on the table in response to the strike against a key U.S. Mideast ally. AMR NABIL  |  AP
    Even before Tuesday’s reversal in prices, economists downplayed the prospect that the price spike could send the economy reeling.
  10. Watermans Crossing apartments at 4515 N. Rome Avenue in Tampa. Westside Capital Group
    Jakub Hejl discovered the Tampa Bay area while studying at IMG Academy.