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It's not every day government has the opportunity to simultaneously preserve a one-of-a-kind natural resource and a charming combination of state history and cultural nostalgia. The potential to do both exists in the state Department of Environmental Protection's proposal to transform Weeki Wachee Springs into a state park.
The proposal, announced at the state Cabinet meeting Tuesday, would require the state to accept ownership of the 60-year-old tourist attraction from the city of Weeki Wachee, which owns the company that operates the park. The land is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which bought it from the city of St. Petersburg in 2001 for $16-million.
DEP Secretary Michael Sole said if the deal goes through the state would retain the attraction's enduring icons, the mermaids, who have entertained countless visitors from all over the world. The future of the adjacent water park, Buccaneer Bay, is less certain, but it would appear the DEP has a handle on what is most important to park visitors and understands that recreation is an essential draw.
At the same time, the DEP has an opportunity to expand the park's offerings. At a minimum, that should include establishing an educational center where visitors could learn about manatees and the ecosystem of the first-magnitude spring and the pristine river it feeds. It also should spotlight the distinctive geology of the underwater cave system beneath the spring, which, at more than 400 feet, is the deepest in the United States.
The DEP's overarching goal, of course, must be to protect those natural resources. A state agency is in much better position to do that than the city of Weeki Wachee or the company that operates the park. In fact, as negotiations continue for Weeki Wachee to donate the park, DEP officials should stipulate that the city be dissolved upon transfer of the property. For 40 years the city - the current population is five - has existed only for the financial expediency of the attraction's private owners. That arrangement has blurred the lines between public and private interests, and the Legislature should have yanked the city's charter years ago.
In a state that has a short memory about the time when there was more flora and fauna than concrete and condos and more roadside attractions than theme parks, Weeki Wachee has historical significance. Converting Weeki Wachee into a state park honors that history, while also helping to preserve the environment's natural balance.
[Last modified December 20, 2007, 01:17:11]