SPRING HILL — It was hot and sticky, and sweat poured over more than one person as they walked through part of the 11,206-acre Weekiwachee Preserve on Friday morning off Osowaw Boulevard.
The county arranged a tour for the media to see firsthand the proposed site for the Nature Coast education and tourism center, which bears the working name of “Nature Coast Experience.”
The jaunt began at the Osowaw Boulevard entrance to the preserve, just a mile or so west of U.S. 19 in Spring Hill.
Other stakeholders joined the tour, asking questions of the tour guide and checking out the flora and fauna of this expansive hardwood hammock.
The tour group stopped near one of the freshwater lakes that dot the preserve. County staff envision turning it into a public beach with access at 2345 Osowaw Boulevard.
Observant spectators Friday saw plenty of birds perched on tree stumps and shrubs near the lake. No black bears, but that is not surprising because they are shy and elusive and would rather spent their time hidden in the far woods and away from crowds.
Public Information Manager and tour director Virginia Singer pointed out a spot back in the wooded area where an educational/tourism center would be built.
The Weekiwachee Preserve is part of a regional system of conservation lands that extend up to Crystal River Buffer Preserve, preserving the southernmost coastal hardwood hammock in western Florida.
The preserve provides a rich mosaic of habitats including several miles of Weeki Wachee River frontage, portions of the Mud River, dense hardwood swamps, freshwater and saltwater marshes, and pine-covered sandhills, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District website.
In 2001, the district purchased the property surrounding the first-magnitude Weeki Wachee Spring from the city of St. Petersburg.
The acquisition was in support of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s “springs initiative,” under which strategies were established for the protection and restoration of Florida’s springs, including placing them in public ownership.
On Nov. 1, 2008, the district entered into a lease agreement with the Florida Parks Service for their management of the property as a state park.
Gov. Rick Scott last week approved $3 million for Hernando County to build a Nature Coast education and tourism center, with the working name of “Nature Coast Experience.”
Hernando County Administrator Len Sossamon has said the county has demonstrated its commitment to this project by matching the state dollar for dollar.
County staff is working with the Southwest Florida Water Management District — which manages the preserve — and discussing the potential of using a small portion of the site as the future location for this education and tourism center.
But not everyone is thrilled with the plan.
“I absolutely do not agree with what you are doing,” said Mary Ellen Smith, of Spring Hill, who happened to be biking in the preserve while the tour was occurring.
Smith said she is afraid any kind of development, even low-impact, will hurt the habitat of animals and the ecology
“Why, it’s so beautiful the way it is,” she said. “That’s why we come down here.”
Smith said she intends to speak out during one of the two public hearings this week.
Singer assured Smith the preserve will remain open to nature lovers and it will still be free, except for those who drive their vehicle and park to use the new beach. And only 40 acres would be dedicated to the center. The rest would remain in its natural condition, she said.
Forrest Bennett, of Hernando Beach, said the location is ideal and with proper environmental controls will not harm the habitat.
Bennett said he wants to open the Weekiwachee Preserve to others in the county and tourists who would like to see it developed as a tourism destination.
“I think it’s being selfish to restrict it to a couple hundred people,” Bennett said of its current use.
The county, in cooperation with the water district, has scheduled two public meetings to gauge stakeholder support.
The first hearing is 4-6 p.m. Wednesday at the Hernando Beach Coast Guard Auxiliary, 4340 Calienta St., in Hernando Beach.
The second is 4-6 p.m. Thursday at the Hernando County Transportation Services Department, 1525 East Jefferson St., in Brooksville.
Singer said the project is not yet a “done deal” and urges everyone to show up and air their views. “We want to hear from the public,” she said.