State lets Palace Entertainment out of Silver Springs lease
Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 6:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 6:13 p.m.
Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet on Wednesday approved a plan that positions Silver Springs to become part of the state park system.
The panel voted unanimously to accept Palace Entertainment's offer to pay $4 million to be released from its lease to operate the Silver Springs attraction.
The lease, which was set to expire at the end of 2029, now ends Sept. 30.
That means on Oct. 1 the state Department of Environmental Protection will take over the 242-acre site encompassing the world-renowned springs. State officials have said Silver Springs will be incorporated into the adjacent Silver River State Park.
Palace Entertainment will continue to operate the attraction until that time.
During the interim before the change in management, Palace Entertainment will spend the $4 million on internal improvements at the site.
Scott and the Cabinet — which includes Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — did not comment on the proposal before voting.
Marion County Commissioner Stan McClain addressed the panel and recommended approval of the proposal on behalf of the community.
"Silver Springs has and always will be part of the identity of Marion County and … created an iconic brand that is still recognized today," McClain said of the springs, considered Florida's first tourist attraction, whose identity as such dates to the 1870s.
Yet, he added, visitors recently have left "filled with disappointment" with their experience, lamenting especially the decline in clarity and quality of the once crystal clear waters.
Wednesday's decision returns Silver Springs to the idea that state environmental regulators had in cutting a deal with the Florida Acquisition Corp. to purchase the site in 1992.
Its use as a theme park was designed to be limited and temporary. State officials mandated that the site be readied as a state park when private vendors eventually left.
After the vote, DEP Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard said in a statement, "We are pleased that the governor and Cabinet have decided to approve this agreement so that the Department can return the property closer to its natural state, involve the community in recreation opportunity decisions and continue our efforts of improving water quality in Silver Springs, one of Florida's most iconic treasures."
"Florida's 171 state parks, trails and historic sites are pleased to welcome the Silver Springs property into our family of resource-based recreation areas and historic and cultural sites," Donald Forgione, director of the Florida Park Service, added in his own statement. "We look forward to working with Palace Entertainment during the transition and to opening the gates on Oct. 1 as a state park."
DEP officials also announced Wednesday that the agency's Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration had held its first meeting to finalize a basin management plan for Silver Springs.
That, officials said, was the first such restoration plan to reduce the nitrates that have caused the springs and upper Silver River to be declared impaired.
As part of its initial plan for Silver Springs, the DEP intends to provide more opportunities for recreational activities, such as hiking, biking, wildlife-viewing and picnicking.
Environmental regulators also have discussed establishing "interpretive" programs that focus on the park's natural, cultural and water resources.
The state also plans to bring in private concessionaires to provide many of the services now offered by Palace Entertainment, as well as launching new ones.
DEP officials said new admission fees have yet to be determined.
The Florida Park Service plans to honor all the passes sold.
The state also anticipates retaining Silver Springs' current staff to the extent possible.
DEP officials said a long-term management plan, as required by state law, is expected to completed by September 2014.
Palace Entertainment, a California-based amusement park operator, has run Silver Springs since 2002. The company is the longest surviving in a series of renters over the past two decades. Yet, according to a recent Cabinet staff report, Palace Entertainment is suffering financially because of reduced profits from the attraction.
Contact Bill Thompson at 867-4117.