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$3M allocation for Hernando tourism-education center left in budget

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Published:   |   Updated: June 3, 2014 at 07:24 PM

A decision to move a the proposed center from private land to the Weekiwachee Preserve may have saved its state funding from the governor’s veto.

Gov. Rick Scott signed off on the $77 billion state budget on Monday and left intact a $3 million appropriation for the project.

State Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, who was one of the appropriation’s main supporters along with Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said the only reason he backed it was because the county agreed to put the center on Weekiwachee Preserve property.

He is confident that Scott would have vetoed the $3 million had the concept remained on a site that had been considered on private land off Shoal Line Boulevard.

“From the first time the county told me about this, I was always in favor of putting it (on the preserve),” Schenck said.

County commissioners at their last meeting supported plans to locate the Nature Coast Experience inside the confines of the 11,206-acre Weekiwachee Preserve, on Osowaw Boulevard and west of U.S. 19.

“I spoke with the governor’s office numerous times about it and put it into the budget late in the process,” Schenck said. “We were just able to leverage a few things and do this for the county.”

Hernando County will match the $3 million allocation, propelling the “Nature Coast Experience” — the working name for the proposed center — closer to reality.

Schenck said the Nature Coast Experience should attract tourists regionally and statewide because there is nothing like it in the area.

“I think it’s definitely something different for Hernando County,” he said. “I think it’s pretty much going to benefit the (whole) county.”

The Weekiwachee Preserve is a combination of natural wetland and upland communities. It is currently open to the public for hiking, biking, fishing, bird watching, canoeing and kayaking. Historically, part of the preserve was mined for limestone, which left behind pits filled with high-quality freshwater from the Floridan aquifer.

County staffers are revisiting an old idea of adding a public beach to a freshwater limestone mine pit on the same property. The entrance to these new amenities would be from Osowaw.

“The Weekiwachee Preserve is the ideal location for these nature-based amenities,” wrote County Administrator Len Sossamon in an email. “We want to provide a low-impact nature coast experience that accommodates our residents’ needs and keeps our visitors in town for days instead of hours.”

Sossamon has been a big proponent of such a facility and included it in his long-range strategic plan.

For decades, Hernando County residents and tourists have dealt with limited beach access and overcrowding at Pine Island, Rogers Park and the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park/Buccaneer Bay.

Providing an additional freshwater beach venue will help relieve the congestion at these popular parks. It will also reduce the environmental stress occurring at Weeki Wachee Springs, a county staff report said.

The county plans to immediately begin working with appropriate agencies, conservation groups and other stakeholders to gather public input to plan and launch the concept.

When completed, the facility will consist of an education and tourism center with exhibits showcasing the natural beauty of Hernando County, the history and environmental significance of the preserve and the low-impact recreational activities available.

Sossamon has said the architecture of the building will reflect an old Florida cracker-style home with a wrap-around veranda. It will also include a public beach with designated parking areas, a shallow kiddie pool, pavilions, cabanas and a boat launch for non-motorized boats.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District operates the preserve and has given tentative approval for the county to explore locating the center on the site. It is still subject to the district’s governing board approval.

“District staff is supportive of the proposed project,” according to Carmen Sanders, land manager for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. “The district is open to partnering with local governments to provide recreation opportunities, and district staff will work with the county to gather public input prior to any decisions being made.”

Meanwhile, Ron Wolf, co-owner of the Blue Pelican Marina, said he and his brother are still going forward with the rezoning of their marina.

Originally, the brothers put forth a proposal for the county to consider tying that rezoning into an educational and tourism center which would be behind the marina.

Wolf said Tuesday it was merely a proposal and it is separate from the marina expansion.

“We’re going to proceed with the rezoning for the marina,” Wolf said. “That doesn’t change.”

Wolf said he would not take sides on the alternate location of the tourism center.

“I’m not going to say either way,” he said.

mbates@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5290

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