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Proposed changes at Fort De Soto stir tempest

The county says fears about alcohol sales and commercialization are exaggerated.

Published February 8, 2006

One person's improvement is another's degradation, Pinellas County officials learned after being hit with phone calls and e-mails protesting proposed changes in services at Fort De Soto Park's concessions.

"They've made some broad generalizations" about the changes, said Lyle Fowler, the parks and recreation operations manager who has fielded complaints about the county's plan to sign a contract with Hollywood Promotions to expand food service and amenities at the 1,100-acre park. "Folks are reading more into it."

Among the complaints is that the contract, still being drafted, would allow sales of alcohol at a park that otherwise doesn't allow it.

"This is an alcohol-free park," said Lorraine Margeson, an environmental activist who is part of a group circulating county documents and examining potential changes. "There's an incredible problem with alcohol at Shell Key now. It doesn't need to happen at Fort De Soto."

Margeson said that she called the Sheriff's Office and that the agency was equally shocked by the idea of alcohol sales at the park. Fowler said he talked to the Sheriff's Office and gave reassurances that this is not an unusual idea.

If approved by the County Commission in March, the contract would allow sales of single servings of beer and wine at a 225-seat restaurant the vendor plans to operate in an existing building near the fort. There would also be sales of packaged beer from a new shop at the boat ramp, but buyers would not be allowed to drink what they bought in the park. Fowler said existing alcohol restrictions would remain at the park. He said the proposal is quite limited and manageable, which he said calmed sheriff's representatives.

Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Jim Bordner said the executive staff will evaluate the contract when it is available and will consult with county officials.

Fowler said there are already plenty of opportunities for boaters to carry or buy alcohol, so sales from the park wouldn't have a significant impact. Opponents say that argument means there is also no need for more alcohol to be available.

Some also fear that the new concessions plans would commercialize a natural space and urbanize the park.

"These are places where people come to appreciate natural systems," said Ann Paul, a staff member of Audubon of Florida and its coastal island sanctuary program. "If they want to go to a restaurant, there are commercial restaurants."

Park officials said the idea of broadening services is in response to visitor requests. Fowler said the county is not getting into the restaurant business, just adding ways for Fort De Soto's nearly 3-million visitors a year to enjoy the park. The aim is not to increase the number of visitors or to harm the ambience, he said.

"Before it's anything, it's Fort De Soto Park," he said. "These are intended to be park concessions."

Other complaints concern a proposed trolley that would move people around the park. Some find that incompatible, while Fowler said it is environmental, reducing the need for visitors to drive themselves around the park.

As people read the vendor's original proposal, they also worry about promotional events they say would cheapen the park. Fowler said the vendor would not have free rein to organize special events. He said they would be approved individually, as they are now for triathlons and Civil War re-enactments. He also said the county could intercede if any services got out of hand.

Richard Lauzier of Hollywood won a competitive bid for the contract in part because of the work he does now at John U. Lloyd State Park in Dania Beach. Park staffers there say they are pleased with Lauzier.

"I was apprehensive at first," said spokesman Carmelo Duesler, who has spent 31 years in the park service. "But he's been great to work with."

Duesler said Lauzier is known throughout the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood area for his food and often operates parties at the park for corporations holding meetings nearby. He said events sometimes draw as many as 1,000 people, bringing revenue for the state park but still protecting its natural mission. He said wine and beer are served at a restaurant Lauzier has there and at a dock-side cafe facing Port Everglades, but that it doesn't create a problem for the park.

Some complaints about the Fort De Soto proposal revolve around process. Though the County Commission has voted publicly twice on parts of this concession since July, some people feel caught unaware.

"There haven't been any complaints so far because nobody knew about it," Margeson said. She said there is also concern over the "culture of how (county officials) think about our pristine places. That has to change."

[Last modified February 8, 2006, 01:15:22]

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