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TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's famous mermaids may soon be state employees.
The owners of Weeki Wachee Springs want to give their pre-Disney tourist attraction to the state, making it a new Florida State Park.
State officials are still working out exactly how they would run or pay for the park. They would tear down a controversial slide. They may tinker with the riverboat ride. But the mermaids would stay.
"Excellent," said Gov. Charlie Crist, who presided over the Florida Cabinet meeting Tuesday where the potential deal was disclosed.
An agreement could resolve a plethora of lawsuits, audits and financial and environmental problems that have recently plagued the 60-year-old landmark tourist attraction and its owner city on U.S. 19 in Hernando County.
Robyn Anderson, Weeki Wachee Mayor, park manager and former mermaid, signed a tentative agreement Monday to donate the tourist attraction to the state by Oct. 31, 2008. But she cautioned that a final deal still required negotiation.
The state owns the land, through the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The tiny city of Weeki Wachee owns the company that leases the land from the state, and owns and operates the park. The relationship has often irked state officials, because the city's five residents -- most of them park employees -- live on the property, run the city and can tax a few neighboring businesses.
Supporters say Weeki Wachee Springs would be a coup for the Florida State Parks system. At a depth of 403 feet, it's the deepest spring in the United States and would round off a list of Tampa Bay area state parks, including Hillsborough River, Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island state parks.
It would also be an anomaly in the park system, as the park would keep its mermaids and their famous show. For years, young women have performed underwater ballet at depths of about 6 feet in bikini tops and fishtail costumes, while breathing from air tanks. The mermaids, featured in several books and movies, were the 1947 brainchild of former Navy frogman Newton Perry.
For years, the attraction was a must-see, until Disney World blossomed farther east. But Weeki Wachee's quirky history is exactly why state officials want to keep the mermaids.
"They're a part of the historical character of that facility and part of why it actually merits becoming a state park," said Michael Sole, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Under details released Tuesday, the state would remove one water slide, which has been criticized as unsafe for years. Whether the state would continue to operate other slides and a boat tour on the Weeki Wachee River is unclear. DEP spokeswoman Sarah Williams said the state would hold public workshops and solicit input on operations.
But Weeki Wachee officials say the deal's not done.
"There's a really lengthy, in-depth document that needs to follow," Anderson said. "And that's something we may or may not agree on. So no, we're not a state park yet."
Following four years of legal wrangling, the attraction has been in court-ordered mediation with the Southwest Florida Water Management District and DEP since October. As mediation continues, water management spokeswoman Robyn Hanke said that the water district had no comment on Tuesday's news.
The tourist attraction has just recently returned to profitability, Anderson said, after years of struggling with debt and legal orders. The attraction, which the city acquired from a private investor group in 2003, just finished a $1-million renovation project forced by the water management agency for safety.
"We were in negative, negative land at first," Anderson said. "There was just so much neglect. The former owner had vendors that he owed money to, and there was so much neglect."
If the state takes over, Weeki Wachee's annual funding would have to compete with other projects in a tight state budget. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he would fight for the park's funding.
Whatever happens, residents say they hope to see the landmark stay.
"It's old Florida," Therese White, sales director at Weeki Wachee Resort, said as she looked out the window and over at the white mermaid statues that line the park entrance. "The state took over Homosassa Springs and it seems to be doing well, so I think that it might be a good thing. As long as it stays nostalgic, people like that."
Fast Facts: Weeki Wachee Springs
Current admission: $13.95 plus tax
Annual attendance: 190,000
Cost of operation: Undisclosed.
The attraction pays the water management agency $260,000 in rent. A report by the state Auditor General's Office in May showed the attraction was in debt by about $31,111 in 2005. In 2002, it had operating losses of about $177,000. In 2003, that number was $174,000.
1947: Weeki Wachee Springs opens. St. Petersburg owns the land.
1999: Small group of investors forms Weeki Wachee LLC
June 2001: The Southwest Florida Water Management District buys the land beneath Weeki Wachee Springs for $16.5-million.
2003: Southwest Florida Water Management District threatens to revoke the lease if owners don't repair and improve the park's aging infrastructure. In turn, the owners donate the attraction to the city of Weeki Wachee for a $1.5-million tax break.e_SClB
2004: After months of mounting tensions, the water district board sues the city, saying it illegally owns and operates the park, and accuses it of illegal dredging. Later, the state threatens to shut down slides for safety reasons and the Legislature curbs the city's powers.
2005: City and Swiftmud head to a mediator, unsuccessfully.
2006: Swiftmud and Weeki Wachee representatives met again, privately, without lawyers and come close to an agreement. Talks, however, fall apart.
2007: A Hernando circuit judge orders more mediation.