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Monday, Mar 30, 2015

Hernando commissioners receptive to new site for tourism center


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— The Nature Coast Experience.

Hernando County Administrator Len Sossamon said that would be a catchy name for the proposed educational and tourism center he wants to open.

And on Tuesday, Sossamon and county commissioners also announced plans to change the location of the facility, still being called by its current title of Nature Coast Educational Plaza, to inside the confines of the 11,206-acre Weekiwachee Preserve, on Osowaw Boulevard and west of U.S. 19.

That site has garnered more support than the previous location, which was off Shoal Line Boulevard, behind the Blue Pelican Marina.

The county met with staffers from the Southwest Florida Water Management District — which operates the preserve — and received tentative approval, subject to the district’s governing board.

The new site not only has the backing of the county commissioners but also many Hernando Beach residents, who believed the previously discussed Shoal Line site would not have been a good fit for the community.

Now it comes down to funding.

Gov. Rick Scott is expected to review a $3 million appropriation to his state budget which would help develop the tourism center. The county has agreed to match that $3 million. Scott’s decision is expected this week.

County Commissioner Nick Nicholson said this alternate site makes more sense logistically because it’s close to U.S. 19, easier to access, large enough for future expansion and has the potential of being as big a tourism destination as Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

“This is a great opportunity for Hernando County to create jobs and bring tourists here,” Nicholson said.

The Weekiwachee Preserve sits next to fresh water lakes formed from previous mining activity. People could visit the tourism center, swim in the lakes and fish, Sossamon said.

Sossamon has already received about 40 emails from people supporting the Weekiwachee Preserve site. There will be a series of public meetings, he said, to further discuss this plan.

Sossamon said he also wants input from conservation groups to make sure any sensitive habitat will not be destroyed.

In 2001, the water district purchased the property surrounding the first-magnitude Weeki Wachee Spring from the city of St. Petersburg.

The acquisition was in support of former Governor Bush’s “springs initiative,” under which strategies were established for the protection and restoration of Florida’s springs, including placing them in public ownership.

In November 2008, the district signed a lease agreement with the Florida Parks Service for the management of the property as a state park.

Sossamon said Tuesday he envisions a southern “Cracker-style” raised facility, with a wraparound porch. There would be a kiddie pool, opportunities for bird watching, a sandy beach and an informational spot for people to learn more about Hernando County, he said.

Hernando Beach resident Forrest Bennett told commissioners the Osowaw site would be “terrific for residents and visitors for decades to come.”

Bennett, who heads up the Hernando Beach Quality of Life project, said the majority of his 300 affiliated members support the change in venue and plans a letter writing campaign to tout the advantages to the governor and others.

Commissioners had previously discussed locating the tourism and education plaza behind the Blue Pelican Marina off Shoal Line Boulevard. Dozens of beach residents complained that such a location would negatively impact their quality of life, clog narrow Shoal Line Boulevard and disturb the coastal tranquility.

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