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A Times Editorial

Tight budget sharpens focus on park projects

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2003

He's done it for many years, but Pat Fagan is giving the Hernando County Commission some particularly good advice these days.

The stalwart Parks and Recreation Department Director has warned his elected bosses that the time has come for them to set some priorities. They should heed his counsel and move with clarity and purpose because the decisions they make in the coming months will leave lasting impressions on the county and affect generations of residents.

Several fairly expensive possibilities that would greatly enhance the county's recreational facilities are looming during a tight budget year. While construction costs for two of the three projects are mostly funded, the commission still has to find the money to pay for operational and maintenance costs, including hiring employees to do that work, over the next couple of years.

In addition, the county must cooperate with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns all or part of the three park sites in question.

One project, Bayport Park, will increase the size of the current recreational facility tenfold, from 11/2 acres to 111/2. The cost of that project is $1.4-million, and the revenue will come from the money residents have already paid into the county's sensitive lands fund. When finished, the existing parking area, picnic tables and restrooms around the boat launch would be improved, adding parking and walking trails that would lead to a boardwalk near the water's edge on the northwest side of the road.

Plans for a final design for the park, which has the potential to become one of Hernando County's showcase attractions, are in the works. The only holdup is that the area is so rich in history that it must undergo a thorough search by archaeologists to unearth and preserve remnants of ancient settlements. Wisely, Fagan says the county is committed to preserving any artifacts that may exist and will not move forward on the park expansion until that goal has been reached.

But the larger decision facing the commission involves the proposal for Pedersen Park, a 30-acre site in a corner of the Weekiwachee Preserve east of Shoal Line Boulevard in Hernando Beach. That project has been in the works for more than five years and calls for developing 15 acres of Swiftmud's 7,000-acre preserve for active recreation and parking. The centerpiece of the park would be a swimming and canoeing area that uses the man-made lakes left behind from now-defunct mining operations.

The commission decided last week to proceed with plans for Pedersen Park. Barring unforeseen delays, Fagan says the project could be completed by fall 2004.

But the biggest threat to Pedersen Park is another Swiftmud-driven park project that is competing for the commission's fiscal attention.

Swiftmud wants the county to take over the attraction at Weeki Wachee Springs, the most visible recreational facility in the county and one of the most well-known in the region. Trouble is, the park's aging infrastructure is in disrepair, and it could be costly for the county to bring it up to standard. In addition, the county would have to dramatically increase its staff to operate and maintain the park. At best, Fagan says, it could be a break-even proposition.

The county is awaiting the results of a study Swiftmud has commissioned to estimate those costs for improvement. But unless Swiftmud is willing to foot the bill for the repairs, as well as offer the county a generous lease agreement, it's not likely the county will be able to afford the venture.

That's just as well. As Fagan has tactfully advised, the Weeki Wachee Springs proposal should not supplant Pedersen Park as the commission's priority. The springs is in safe hands with Swiftmud as its owner, and there likely will be future opportunities -- when the economic climate is more favorable -- for the county to make a deal on that property.

For now, the commission should stay focused on Pedersen Park and Bayport Park. Those long-awaited projects are sorely needed and offer residents the earliest prospect for use.

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