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Details sought for educational-tourism center

Published:   |   Updated: July 13, 2014 at 11:42 AM

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Much has been written about a potential site for a $6 million educational-tourism center in Hernando County.

But what exactly would go inside of the place?

That is what officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection want to know before agreeing to move forward with possibly locating the center — tentatively called the Nature Coast Experience — on the grounds of Weeki Wachee State Park.

Martha Robinson, communications manager with the Florida Park Service, said her agency would be interested in partnering with the county government on some kind of tourism-educational center, but more details are needed to see if it would fit in with the existing activities at the Springs.

“I think we would need to have a better idea of what they are thinking about,” Robinson said.

It’s a question County Commissioner Dave Russell also wants answered before any such project gets off the ground.

Russell told commissioners last week that he wants to see a viable educational-tourism center with detailed plans because that is the only way the county can sell the idea to the state, which gave Hernando County $3 million to help build the proposed facility. Hernando County has agreed to match that $3 million.

“Just because we have $3 million doesn’t mean we have to spend it,” Russell said. “I want to see something that’s viable and that will create a lot of energy in the community.”

Russell said Friday that in order to sell this idea to stakeholders, the county staff must develop a firm idea of what it would look like and what people would experience when entering the doors. Right now there are ideas of what it should be like but nothing concrete, he said.

Without those details, he said, the idea might not succeed.

“Before we even spend a nickel, we need to know what in the world we need to do,” Russell said.

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County commissioners last week narrowed down the site of the facility to two possible places: the Weekiwachee Preserve and Weeki Wachee State Park.

County Public Information Manager Virginia Singer said state environmental officials didn’t nix the idea but agreed to meet again when the county had a firmer design concept.

“We’re working through the details now,” Singer said. “We’re definitely hoping people will want to come back to it.

“At this point, we have to see what the process is going to be and develop a concept and see if it meets the goals of the park’s master plan,” she said.

County staffers have said the educational-tourism center will showcase Hernando County’s history, ecology and tourism sites.

“It’s an opportunity to educate people on everything that’s going on in the county,” Singer said.

Singer said Thursday the county first is trying to establish a site for the center, which will determine the scope and architecture of the project.

“Location is pivotal,” she said.

Singer said while a firm design plan is not ready, visitors would find static and interactive exhibits.

There likely would be plenty of maps on the walls, samples of rocks, photographs, archeological exhibits and tourism brochures.

There could be an exhibit where people press a button and it lights up showing a display of the underground caves in the area, Singer said.

The Nature Coast Experience also would function as a tourism welcome center, with employees directing visitors to other attractions.

“We don’t have the design for the displays yet,” Singer said. “That’s still a ways away.”

Singer said there likely would be conference rooms inside the facility where visitors could hear experts talk about topics such as creating a butterfly garden at their home.

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County Administrator Len Sossamon envisions a southern “Cracker-style” raised facility, with a wraparound porch.

Weeki Wachee State Park recently completed a conceptual master plan, which details various aesthetic and environmental improvement projects there.

For example, park Manager Toby Brewer said in a recent interview that the parking lot next to U.S. 19 poses an environmental hazard because it makes it easier for polluted water to flow into the spring system during heavy rains.

Meanwhile, Russell said he envisions a facility similar to that in Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Citrus County, which includes a visitor center with interactive exhibits, displays showing the history of the area, a diorama depicting life in Homosassa in the early 1900s, a train replica and life-sized fake crocodiles and alligators.

“But this is Hernando County, and what are we going to be doing in terms of (this area) that will entice the public?” Russell asked.

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