Architect envisions nature center at springs

A Citrus native hopes the Three Sisters Springs site's buyer considers an education center and land restoration.

Published March 20, 2005

CRYSTAL RIVER - Days after acquiring the Three Sisters Springs property last week, the developer said that no final decision had been made about what his investment group plans for the parcel.

In case Harry C. "Hal" Flowers and Three Sisters Springs Holdings are unable to decide, there are quite a few people in Citrus County and beyond who would be happy to make a few suggestions.

One of them is Nicole D. Bienkowski, a Crystal River native who spent much of her childhood frolicking in the nearby springs and whose mother, Marie, started the Manatee Toy Company.

"I can remember when the springs had so much hyacinth in it. We would paddle in with our flippers and masks. It was filled with manatees," she said.

So when Bienkowski attended Texas A&M University to pursue a master's degree in architecture and needed a site she could study for her thesis, she thought of only one place: Three Sisters.

Her proposal for the site includes an environmental education center and plans to restore the landscape so the area's wildlife would return.

"I was calling it the Three Sisters Wildlife Education Center," she said proudly.

Others think it's a great idea, the only one that will mesh the interests of preserving and restoring the environment and meet the needs of a waterfront community that many believe thrives on its ecotourism.

"The highest and best use of that property is tourism," said Sam Lyons, a former dive shop owner and a member of the county's Tourist Development Council. "That property should house a conservation and education and tourism facility."

He added, "It's unfortunate that something couldn't be done with the last remaining pristine piece of property . . . this last little piece of nature.

"It's a shame," he said.

Over the years, the state and federal governments, as well as a private conservation entity, have looked at the springs property with an eye toward purchase and preservation.

But those deals never worked out, much to the disappointment of Bienkowski and others like her.

"The city thrives on the nature that it has," she said.

The 27-year-old architect who now lives in Southern California remembers the days she worked at her mother's old store in Crystal River and having to direct visitors to Homosassa because they wanted to see manatees but not get in the water.

"The city is losing revenue," she said.

An education center would bring in new visitors and offer more services to those who are already visiting, she said.

Here's how she designed it:

The main entrance would sit off Cutler Spur. A wall welcoming visitors would feature a manatee statue and the words "Three Sisters."

The visitors could then walk any number of elevated walkways and trails. Bienkowski said she would have most of the walkways and the structures on the site raised to have a minimal impact on the environment and because the land is on a flood plain.

There's a boardwalk from the parking lot, across Lake Linda, and into the welcome center and auditorium. The complex of buildings would also feature classrooms, exhibit rooms, a gift shop and a cafe.

Elsewhere on the site are docks for kayaks and boats. The boat dock also features a snack booth. Nearby, there's a three-story tower, which would allow visitors to look down into the waters and see the manatees. Also stretching through the newly planted trees on the property would be additional walking trails.

In the end, Bienkowski said, she hopes the center and its other facilities would help educate generations about the value of preserving or restoring the natural landscape and about the gentle manatees and other wildlife.

It's something she's learned growing up within a few hundred feet of the springs.

"When I come home, all I want to do is go out on the water," she said. "It's gorgeous. It's such a unique area ... It's the last good chunk of waterfront, and it's got a lot of history."

Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Raghuram Vadarevu can be reached at rvadarevu@sptimes.com or 564-3627.