Thursday, Oct 02, 2014
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Hernando considers building tourism center at Weeki Wachee State Park

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— Hernando County commissioners would like to build a proposed educational-tourism center adjacent to Weeki Wachee State Park and directed staff Tuesday to meet with state officials to explore the feasibility of a partnership.

In a 5-0 vote, commissioners indicated the state park, at U.S. 19 and State Road 50, as their preferred location. They said the site would be more effective in drawing tourists than another site that had been much-discussed: the Weekiwachee Preserve. Still, just in case this latest location doesn’t pan out, commissioners left on the table the preserve site off Osowaw Boulevard, about a half-mile west of U.S. 19 and Spring Hill Drive.

County Commissioner Diane Rowden said she changed her mind about building it on the southern part of the Weekiwachee Preserve after scores of residents protested what they believe is the destruction of animal habitat and the eco-system at the property, which was once a mine. The site had proven attractive because it has a freshwater lake that could be turned into a public beach.

“I would rather keep the assets as a true preserve and explore another site,” Rowden said.

Commissioners like the idea of piggybacking on the Weeki Wachee name, which is world-famous for its mermaids. And that site has some positives the preserve lacks, such as a built-in tourism base, the proximity of the mermaid attraction and the Weekiwachee River.

One possibility is to re-design the existing entrance of the park — unchanged for years — and funnel visitors through the new tourism-educational center where people could learn more about Hernando County, its ecology and attractions. That part would be free. If people wanted to enter the park itself and view the mermaid show, they could use a separate pay entrance, Rowden said.

Apparently off the table are two other alternate locations: the Lake House at 1202 Kenlake Ave. in Spring Hill and a piece of land off Shoal Line Road.

Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said the decision to build the center is “the biggest thing we’ve entered into in a long time” and the board wants to find the ideal site the first time out.

mbates@hernandotoday.com

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