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A Times Editorial

Star's shine shouldn't dim park's allure

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002

The Citrus County Commission should be careful just how far its advisory board, the Tourist Development Council, extends the welcome mat at Fort Island Trail Park. There's a chance too many people will wipe their feet on it.

At a TDC meeting last week, an idea was unveiled to bring professional zookeeper and television celebrity Jack Hanna to Citrus County. Hanna's show is now based at Busch Gardens in Tampa, but he's making rumblings about not renewing his deal there. Crystal River is one place where he's considering moving his headquarters, which reportedly attracts tourists from all over the world.

Commissioner Josh Wooten has suggested using $160,000 a year that would be raised from a 1 percent increase in the county's bed tax as an incentive to lure Hanna and keep him here.

The Citrus County Economic Development Council is poised to sweeten that pot by pledging $200,000 the County Commission gives it for the next two years.

That's a pittance of what Hanna needs to run his far-flung operation. Hanna's primary income is corporate sponsorships, and Busch Gardens pays him $1.2-million a year.

However, perhaps the most valuable asset the county could offer Hanna is long-term use of its waterfront property at Fort Island Trail. The popular spot is a destination for boaters who prefer to use the launch there instead of ones at Kings Bay or Homosassa, and to innumerable residents and visitors who want to wade in the Gulf of Mexico or savor a sunset.

Wooten apparently envisions the TDC offering Hanna the rent-free use of an existing building at the park, and to help him out with renovations that would be needed to make the site television friendly.

At first blush, the idea is appealing. Hanna's reputation as a wildlife expert and a TV talk show regular should draw tourists from near and far, each hopefully spending money in restaurants, motels, gas stations and retail shops.

Of course, many of those visitors will want to see Crystal River's biggest tourist draw, manatees, which might be better news for the dive and snorkel boats than it is for the endangered mammals that already are dodging boat props and people during the winter months.

Possible down sides would be the need for additional parking, and the increasing risk that, with the arrival of more people, the ecosystem the park's noncommercial designation attempts to maintain will be degraded.

Hanna admits he is exploring his possibilities, and that Crystal River is just one. The commission must treat this courtship as it would any other, and not rule out the possibility that Hanna will use any offer the county makes as leverage to get a better deal at Busch Gardens or somewhere else.

Until last week, public servants have been stingy with information about efforts to strike a bargain with Hanna. We hope that as details emerge, they will be more forthcoming to the public with information, and that they will not allow the star in their eyes to blind them to the obvious:

Hanna is a sideshow, albeit an intriguing one; the main attraction at Fort Island Trail is the park. Nothing should negatively impact the existing environment and activities available there.

That said, extend a hand to Hanna and hope he'll appreciate the wild life we have to offer in Citrus County.

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