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A Times Editorial

Don't let springs stall park

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 8, 2002

It is too soon to determine whether purchasing the Weeki Wachee Springs attraction would be a good investment of the public's money. It could be a money pit or a moneymaker.

While the Hernando County Commission ponders the possibilities, it should not allow another long-awaited and worthy recreational project, Pedersen Park, to languish.

Plans for Pedersen Park -- nestled among 30 acres on the 7,000-acre Weekiwachee Preserve east of Hernando Beach -- have been on the drawing board for more than five years. It is a cooperative venture between the county and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns the land. Just last summer, the county and Swiftmud reached a compromise that would develop 15 acres for active recreation and parking, and protect the other half as wetlands and wildlife habitat.

But the centerpiece of Pedersen Park is a swimming facility that would make excellent use of the man-made lakes, which are the byproduct of limerock mining that occurred on the property years ago. These pristine waters would be filled with swimmers, canoes and kayaks, and they would be complemented by nearby walking trails, concession stands and restrooms.

Because Hernando County operates no public swimming pool, and the only swimming area on the Gulf of Mexico is overcrowded at Pine Island, the facility at Pedersen Park is sorely needed. The public has waited patiently for the plans to come to fruition, tolerating numerous delays while counting on Swiftmud and the County Commission to keep their promise to make it happen.

But now Pedersen Park has been put off like a less desirable prom date while the county seeks a courtship with Weeki Wachee Springs LLC, the company that leases the 27-acre attraction from Swiftmud. The commission has directed County Administrator Richard Radacky and Parks and Recreation Director Pat Fagan to study the proposal -- including how much it would cost to upgrade and maintain the tourist attraction, and whether it could be a consistently profitable venture. When they finish their analysis, the commission will decide whether to buy it.

In the meantime, plans for Pedersen Park have been set aside. Doing so is a mistake because further delays could be costly.

More important, neither project should be dependent on the other. Even if the commission eventually decides to buy Weeki Wachee Springs, there is still a need for Pedersen Park. The county is growing fast enough that both facilities would get plenty of use.

The county may be hesitant to continue with Pedersen Park because it would compete with Weeki Wachee, which it is eyeing as a potential revenue source. That self-interest is shortsighted and misplaces what should be the county's top priority: providing an adequate and diverse park system.

In addition, Fagan says he wants to wait to see the outcome of a tentative offer by the Times to provide major funding for a public swimming pool that the county would own and operate. The same argument applies to that possibility; the county could use the pool and Pedersen Park.

The public has waited long enough for Pedersen Park to become a reality. The commissioners should not use the possible purchase of Weeki Wachee Springs as an excuse to delay it further.

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