BROOKSVILLE — Plans to build an environmental education and tourism center in Hernando Beach got a potential economic boost last week when state lawmakers appropriated $4 million for the project in the governor’s $77.1 billion budget.
It now goes to Gov. Rick Scott for approval.
Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said it is premature to assume that this environmental facility is a done deal, even with the $4 million inclusion in the budget.
Dukes said people are assuming there is already a signed contract and there will be a tourism center off Shoal Line Boulevard in the near future.
“We have not signed any contracts with anybody to locate that facility at any specific place,” Dukes said.
Dukes said this all began when the lobbyist for Hernando County approached state lawmakers in Tallahassee about the concept of a tourism center somewhere in the county. State officials, knowing that tourism is a high priority with Gov. Scott, were eager to include that on the budget.
The state money, if it is approved, would come in handy “if the board ultimately decides to make such a facility a reality but nobody knows when that will be,” he said.
“Gov. Scott has to approve it and we are not in any contractual negotiations about anything,” Dukes said.
County Administrator Len Sossamon indicated in his long-range strategic plan for Hernando County that a tourism center would boost the local economy.
And last month, brothers Jim and Gordon Wolf of Hernando Beach presented a plan to planning and zoning board members that would seem to fit into Sossamon’s vision.
The brothers have proposed a Nature Coast Educational Plaza, to be built off Shoal Line Boulevard, behind the Blue Pelican Marina, which they own.
When finished, it would include a 55-foot-tall outdoor amphitheater, an indoor cultural center which includes a 200-seat indoor nature theater, a gift store, welcome center and parking lot.
Hernando County would own the educational plaza and the Wolf Brothers would build, own and operate up to 42 rental cottages adjacent to the facility.
County commissioners have indicated they like the concept set forth by Sossamon but there is still much to be debated about the location.
Planning and zoning commissioners unanimously approved the project at their meeting. P&Z Chairman Robert Widmar said he understood residents’ concerns but planning staffers have reviewed the request, deemed it an appropriate use for the community and included 28 performance conditions and that is good enough for him.
On Tuesday, the P&Z recommendation goes before county commissioners, who are the final word on rezonings.
But Judith Simpson, president of the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association, is asking county commissioners to delay that discussion until the county can schedule an informational meeting to help alleviate residents’ concerns.
“We believe that it is in the best interests of this community, and Hernando County to hold such a meeting as soon as possible,” Simpson wrote to commissioners.
Simpson said the community does not have enough information about the proposal.
“We are asking that appropriate county staff provide information about plans, grant requests, road and sidewalk projects, and proposed improvements at the county boat ramp and parking area, and listen to citizen recommendations,” Simpson wrote.
Dukes said he could not imagine postponing this discussion, especially since many people are slated to show up Tuesday.
“I can’t imagine us doing that at this late date,” Dukes said.
County Commissioner Dave Russell said the decision to postpone discussion would have to be made Tuesday by the board.
Russell said the tourism-educational facility fits in with an initiative of County Administrator Len Sossamon in his long-range strategic plan for Hernando County. Russell said the project also ties in with the settlement money due Hernando County from the British Petroleum rig that exploded April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico and affected the economies of several states.
The estimated $7 million it is expected to cost for this Hernando Beach center could come from a mix of BP money and state funding.
Because Tuesday’s meeting is quasi-judicial in nature, county commissioners are prohibited from discussing the matter in detail.
Still, Russell said he will be interested in what both sides have to say.
Residents packed a planning and zoning meeting last month and most spoke against the project, saying it would add congestion to the area and narrow Shoal Line Boulevard could not handle the expected increase in traffic.
Hernando Beach, they said, is meant to be a quiet haven away from the urban areas of Spring Hill and they want to keep it that way.
The county commission meeting will begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Hernando County Government Center, 20 North Main St. in downtown Brooksville.