On Monday night, over two hundred citizens returned to the Vanguard High School cafeteria in Ocala to get briefed about the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) proposal for the future of the Silver Springs Attraction, and overall they liked what they heard. Click here to read the full Interim Plan proposal.
The proposal focuses on redeveloping the existing Silver Springs Attraction with emphases on restoring natural hydrology, being attentive to environmental restoration, upgrading storm water management, and reducing negative water impacts. The plan calls for removal of unhelpful and non-essential structures and schemes, bringing maintenance and restoration to essential structures, and identifying private sector partners for continuing a range of visitor services and certain appropriate concessions. Don’t worry, the glass bottom boats will continue as will other low impact opportunities for visitors to experience the Silver Springs area, together with an aim to add swimming, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, and nature trails with interpretive programs to explain and showcase the natural wonders of the park. However, the Jeep Safari, for example, is (thankfully) slated for elimination.
The future of Wild Waters, the water entertainment park at the corner of the property, seems secure for the time being. The Interim Plan calls for it to continue operating during transition through a private contracted operator. Numerous commenters insisted that it was not needed there and detracted from the restorative, nature-based vision for the property.
Generally, the DEP’s Department of Recreation and Parks (DRP) seemed to have listened well to the huge crowd and dozens of commenters that had addressed the issue in December at the same venue.
The need for a plan became a concern when the current lessee, Palace Entertainment, finally admitted that it really did not want to continue operating Silver Springs Attraction. The degradation of the springs and the decline in the maintenance of park facilities sparked a public outcry for the state, the property owner and lessor, to seize the opportunity and take back the property. The state already administers the adjacent Silver River State Park.
Among the public commenters, Vanguard High School IB program science teacher John Hare emphasized the opportunity for the development of a research center which would study the springs and the habitat, allowing multiple disciplines to have the facilities on site to learn more and share their insights. His thoughts were echoed and endorsed repeatedly.
Several commenters urged that private sector business leaders be consulted in developing the park so that the state would not be burdened with its maintenance costs. DRP has a strong record behind its management and draws substantial revenue from its operations statewide, but the money people wanted to have their interests prioritized. The crowd was not too enthusiastic about that, local or not, having seen what Palace Entertainment had done.
A number of commenters (including yours truly) urged that DRP continue to take the lead in management, with expressions of distrust and disdain for county and state elected officials as well as those with monetary interests or benefits in anything to do with Silver Springs. Farmer and environmental activist Jeri Baldwin said that as far as stewardship of such natural gifts, these folks were “lacking resources of the heart” to be entrusted with such responsibility.
Current employees also offered comments, defending the care given to the animals, reminding the audience of the animals’ popularity with visitors, and that the unique habitat that is home to most of these animals has been one of the key reasons for their inclusion and popularity at the park from its earliest days. There were also concerns about continued employment during any transition, and Captain Tom regaled the audience with his 15 ideas for broadening the offerings just in boat ride themes.
Speaking of earlier times and the springs’ history, Cynthia Graham encouraged DRP to include the presence of Paradise Park in its historic representations of Silver Springs. Paradise Park was the neighboring property “for colored people only” during the segregation era. (An excellent history of Paradise Park is provided by Jenny Hammer with a number of photos – click here.) The DRP officials stated in reply that they had planned to include Paradise Park in their historic representations.
Along the same lines, Mindy Adams, a professor at College of Central Florida, further affirmed the need to include Paradise Park in Silver Springs’ history. She also wanted to ensure that when folks talked about “authentic Florida” that they didn’t mean a sanitized Florida. She insisted that the garish, tasteless, and tacky – “kitschy” she called it – should be included as well since it is undeniably part of Florida’s heritage, too.
River boat captain and environmentalist Karen Chadwick expressed her concern that the presence of managers from Adena Springs at the first public meeting might infer that their project’s seemingly endless money might be influencing any part of the discussion, particularly among private, for-profit promoters. Adena Springs, a venture of billionaire Frank Stronach, has continued securing additional property for its huge proposed cattle ranch and slaughterhouse operation, including property quite close to Silver Springs.
The next step is for the DRP proposal to go to Governor Scott and the Cabinet for approval. It is expected to be decided on Wednesday. Supporters of the plan have been urged by the Silver Springs Alliance to communicate support for the DEP/DRP plan and the need for Governor and Cabinet to entrust the property to DEP/DRP, not local officials, other agencies, or any private organization.
The emails are:
DEP Secretary: firstname.lastname@example.org [corrected: no "e" in vinyard]
Governor Scott: email@example.com
Adam Hollingsworth: Chief of Staff to Gov. Scott: firstname.lastname@example.org
The entire audience seemed eager for the plan to gain their approval so that Silver Springs can begin the long road to restoration as a natural treasure. Let’s hope the money crowd hasn’t poisoned the idea and precluded an intelligent decision by state leaders.