BROOKSVILLE — If Hernando County creates a recreation area inside the Weekiwachee Preserve, it will be in direct competition with a proposed project off U.S. 19 in Pasco County called SunWest Park, some residents fear.
Hernando has proposed building a tourism and education center on land that was once a mining site in the preserve, along with a public beach, hiking trails, picnic areas and a parking lot.
Meanwhile, about five miles south on U.S. 19 in Pasco County, the proposed SunWest Park would
bring a beach, riding and nature trails and recreational activities to a reclaimed mine.
Aripeka resident Karen Smith, who has weighed in on the matter at public meetings, has told commissioners that tourists coming north on U.S. 19 will pass SunWest first and will not make it as far as Hernando County.
“Where are people going to go?” she asked. “I don’t think they’ll ever get past SunWest.”
But County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said the purpose of the “Nature Coast Experience” — the working title of the proposed project — is not to make money for the county, although that could be an ultimate by-product.
The main purpose, he said, is providing another entertainment alternative to residents.
“This is a not-for-profit venture,” Dukes said.
On Tuesday, county commissioners said they are also considering another site for the center — adjacent to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. However, they made it clear in a 5-0 vote that the Weekiwachee Preserve is still on the table.
Smith sent an email to all five county commissioners and representatives of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which may partner with the county in developing the preserve.
SunWest will offer water activities including wake boarding, a tow line, splash pads, kayaking in the Gulf with dolphins and manatees and 500 parking spaces.
“All of these features will be less than $1 in gas south of the proposed (preserve) project,” Smith wrote.
She added that SunWest will have better access to visitors and is located five miles closer to the higher density populations that Weekiwachee Preserve cannot match.
“While not a Disney operation, SunWest is a competitor with overwhelming advantages that will threaten attendance/revenues at already existing Hernando Beach parks as well as at the proposed (preserve) park,” Smith wrote. “It’s unlikely that there is enough new resident and tourism business coming to northern Pasco and southern Hernando counties to support the success of both of these facilities in the foreseeable future.”
Dukes said he doesn’t care what Pasco County is doing. He’s only concerned with this county and making sure the board does what is right for the citizens.
“This is for Hernando County, a destination where families can come and spend a day,” he said. “If we can break even, I’m satisfied.”
Dukes stressed that the county must be good stewards of taxpayers’ money if the preserve is developed. And it will require paying maintenance workers, lifeguards, groundskeepers and people to give presentations.
The goal, he said, is for the complex to be self-sustaining.
If the county acted on the assumption that it must be competitive with other counties, it would never venture out on any projects, Dukes said.
Commissioner Dave Russell said the SunWest project and the Nature Coast Experience are two different projects so people cannot make an ‘apples to apples’ comparison.
SunWest, he said, is conceived more as a place where people can go for competitive water sports. The Nature Coast Experience is more of an educational facility where people can learn about nature and — depending on where it is located — could take advantage of nearby springs or lakes.
“It’s a different equation altogether,” Russell said.