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Dunnellon's booming nature industry

Growth and profits are meeting ecology and natural beauty in a rare convergence of interests.

[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Curt Nelson and Don Ferrell motor down the Rainbow River. The men say they hope the state will buy more land along the river to protect the river as a draw for visitors.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002

DUNNELLON -- Jane Keele moved to this small city 33 years ago to escape the hard-charging developers who consumed South Florida.

"It was ridiculous," the 68-year-old former bait shop owner says. "But Dunnellon was idyllic and friendly. I knew everyone by name."

There are more strangers now as the area around the city of 1,900 has expanded to 60,000 people. And so Keele is worried about strip malls and housing developments.

But while the Marion County community flirts with economic expansion, it is holding firm to what is perhaps its strongest asset: nature.

The ecotourism industry may have never been stronger, officials say. Long known for its outstanding recreation based around the Rainbow and Withlacoochee rivers, Dunnellon is emerging as a destination for hikers, bicyclists, equestrians and bird watchers.

"It's a big recreational hub and it has even more potential than has been realized so far," said Mickey Thomason, regional manager of the state Office of Greenways and Trails.

After years of inadequate funding, his office has been given the resources to develop the Dunnellon section of the Cross Florida Greenway, a 110-mile corridor that runs along land once designated for the Cross Florida Barge Canal.

Consider these projects that could get under way in the next few years:

A plan to connect the Withlacoochee State Trail with the greenway. The 46-mile paved trail, the longest of its kind in the state, winds through Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, where it ends in Citrus Springs.

At a cost of about $1.5-million, the Department of Transportation will build a bridge over the Withlacoochee River, allowing hundreds of visitors to cross into Dunnellon. A trail head, including parking, picnic tables and restrooms, is also planned. The work could be done by November 2003.

The state is in discussions with a landowner in eastern Dunnellon whose property severs the greenway. If a deal can be reached, trails that start on U.S. 441 near Ocala could continue through Dunnellon.

Greenways is looking to lease property owned by Florida Power that would be used for trails running from Dunnellon and through the Goethe State Forest before linking with the Nature Coast Greenway in Chiefland.

And there is a plan to reopen the Inglis Lock, a 600-foot mass of concrete and steel that connects Lake Rousseau to the barge canal. This would allow boaters to travel to and from the gulf. Greenways wants to minimize the amount of fresh water that escapes with the opening of the lock.

Taken together, these developments could be a boon for Dunnellon. "There's a lot of really neat things happening here," community activist Curt Nelson said. "It's becoming a nicer place to live each year."

Nelson is part of a coalition calling for the state to purchase more than 300 acres along the east side of the Rainbow River known as the Griffitts tract.

So far, a deal has been elusive: The state has offered about $1.7-million but the owners want $2.5-million.

Aside from providing a buffer from commercial or residential development along the river, the land would enlarge Rainbow Springs State Park, which attracts 175,000 visitors annually.

Don Koppler, executive director of the Dunnellon Area Chamber of Commerce, said he supports preserving the land as a draw for ecotourism. "I'd much rather see that than a 200-unit housing development," he said.

Land just north of the Griffitts property has been pegged for an exit for people who float down the Rainbow River on inner tubes.

The tuber exit will not be ready for two years, so county officials are scrambling to find an alternative now that the former location, near the County Road 484 bridge, has been put up for sale.

While most of the new focus is on land-based activities, Dunnellon's water resources should continue to be a major draw.

Sherri Goldsmith, who opened Dragonfly Watersports five years ago, said tourists are increasingly seeking alternatives to stereotypical Florida vacations.

"It's becoming more evident to people that there's more to do than visit the mouse," she said, referring to Disney World.

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