What does the future hold for Silver Springs?


Glass-bottom boats on the Silver River at the Silver Springs attraction on Friday, March 8, 2013. The state will take over Silver Springs in September after $4 million worth of improvements are made.

Alan Youngblood/Staff photographer
Published: Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 5:51 p.m.

State park managers have offered a peek at how Silver Springs will be transformed from its awkward mix of zoo animals, kiddie rides, boat excursions and aging entertainers into a recreation venue anchored by one of the best known natural features in inland Florida.

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Glass-bottom boats on the Silver River at the Silver Springs attraction on Friday, March 8, 2013. The state will take over Silver Springs in September after $4 million worth of improvements are made.

Alan Youngblood/Staff photographer

Department of Environmental Protection officials over the past week hosted a series of meetings in Ocala that outline plans for various amenities that will be offered once the current contractor, Palace Entertainment, departs.

The sessions, held less than seven months before one of the state's most renowned tourist sites reverts to public management, also spelled out the process the DEP will use to transition Silver Springs into Florida's award-winning park system.

Yet the meetings have revealed an undercurrent of tension between the competing visions for the park after Palace's 11-year tenure as the attraction's operator ends on Sept. 30.

There appears to be general agreement from state officials, environmentalists and business owners that the California-based theme park operators' willingness to go, after agreeing to make $4 million in improvements at the site by October, has presented a special opportunity to the community and the state.

“All state parks are special, but Silver Springs will be unique among all of them,” Lew Scruggs, assistant bureau chief in the DEP's Office of Park Planning, told a group of about 60 people gathered at the Fort King Presbyterian Church in Ocala on Thursday night.

“We fully recognize,” Scruggs added, “that the model of all other state parks is not going to apply here.”

But the push to fashion a one-of-a-kind blueprint that capitalizes on Silver Springs' distinct qualities — a large freshwater spring and proximity to almost 500,000 acres of public recreation land — seems to have already exposed potential rifts in trying to develop a long-range plan.

The DEP has already signaled some of the changes to come.

For one thing, the site will likely be rechristened as Silver Springs State Park, which will cover about 4,600 acres as the 242-acre theme park is merged with the adjacent Silver River State Park.

Coinciding with the loss of its alligator pens, the “jungle” cruise and the Lighthouse Ride will be a significant drop in the entrance fee.

The DEP has proposed charging $8 per car filled with up to eight people, and $5 for a vehicle with a single occupant, records show.

That compares to the $34.99 for each visitor over the age of 10 that Palace now charges.

Gina Peebles, Marion County's parks director, said the reduced entrance fee would likely help boost attendance.

According to DEP's documents, attendance and revenues at Silver Springs have sagged recently.

For the year that ended September 2011, Palace reported 241,143 visitors and revenues of $5.8 million from admissions, food sales and merchandise purchases.

During the following 12 months, attendance slipped to 217,035 — a 10 percent drop — and revenues declined by about $700,000.

Still, Palace cleared $3.6 million after expenses for the year ending in September 2012, although that was down by about $600,000 over the prior year.

The numbers for Wild Waters reflect those of Silver Springs.

The water park reported 102,705 visitors in 2012, compared with 114,889 in 2011, a decline of 11 percent.

It generated almost $1.5 million in revenue two years ago and about $1.4 million last year.

The expenses claimed by Palace did not appear to include personnel costs and the roughly $600,000 annual rent payment the company makes to the state.

Members of an Apopka-based team of state parks officials, who briefed prospective contractors early last week on the separate pieces up for bid in coming months, reiterated their plans to stick with certain features at Silver Springs.

Those include the concert venue at Twin Oaks Mansion and Wild Waters. Each would be run by a separate vendor.

According to DEP documents, the new concert vendor will plan at least nine shows at Twin Oaks Mansion, none of which would start before 6 p.m. without the DEP's approval.

The agency also reserved the right to veto any sponsors or advertising that it deems inappropriate, and the right to use the concert venue's grounds up to 12 times a year.

As for Wild Waters, the concessionaire would take over the complete park. One provision requires that any merchandise sold at the site must be “high quality, environmentally friendly and reflective of the Florida Park Service mission … to provide resource-based recreation while preserving, interpreting and restoring natural and cultural resources.”

The glass-bottomed boats could be broken off from a bigger package that, according to DEP documents, included other tour boats as well as sales of food and beverages, merchandise and equipment rentals.

The agency will entertain vendor proposals to run all or just some of those concessions, records indicate.

The DEP's plan states that a winning bidder could also introduce mobile food carts, outdoor equipment outfitters, a full-service restaurant and possibly a shuttle service between the park and the county's Ray's Wayside Park on the Ocklawaha River for kayakers and canoeists.

Finally, the last portion of the project entails hiring a special-events coordinator to recruit and manage weddings, receptions, conferences, family reunions, consumer shows and other “park-friendly” events.

The DEP, in its interim management plan, noted that it wants to expand that service.

The DEP seemed to indicate an interest in moving away from Palace's business model — both by having individual concessionaires and by emphasizing the ecotourism angle that some in Marion County have preached for the past two years.

But the meetings also demonstrated that DEP, which admittedly is working under a time crunch, seems unsure of what it is looking for after Palace rolls out of town.

Interested contractors posing questions to DEP's team last week frequently heard that they could incorporate an idea into their proposal and agency officials would be willing to “entertain or “negotiate” it once the bids come in on April 8.

“We have a blank canvas and everybody's plan is part of the paint,” Sally Lieb, the park manager at Silver River State Park, told the assembled vendors.

Under the DEP's plan, each contractor would be responsible for their area. That means they will be expected to arrange and pay for their own water, power, garbage, telephone and maintenance services.

The DEP explained the other side of the ongoing conversion at the meeting Thursday at Fort King Presbyterian Church.

The session was the first of several that will take place in coming months before the project is brought to the state Acquisition and Restoration Council, the 10-member panel that reviews the use of all state-owned conservation lands.

In the proposed operational plan for Silver Springs for the first year, the DEP said its partnerships with private vendors help defray costs, expand entrepreneurial opportunities and generate substantial economic benefits for the communities in the vicinity of a state park.

Scruggs, the agency's assistant bureau chief for park planning, told those gathered at the church that the state's park system sparked more than $1 billion in economic activity for those communities last year.

Silver Springs could certainly cash in, he suggested.

“All the ingredients are here for this to be a major ecotourism hub,” said Scruggs, noting the site's proximity to the Ocala National Forest, the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway and other public recreation property.

But that is what concerns some people locally.

The first public indication that Palace was ready to vacate Silver Springs emerged two years ago.

Marion County Commissioner Stan McClain, the board chairman at the time, vigorously argued for county control of the site as a way to alter Palace's “failed” business model and create jobs for local companies.

The idea died when the board split on whether to spend Marion County money to take it over. (Commissioner Kathy Bryant declared a conflict of interest and did not publicly express an opinion on the issue.)

What lived on, though, was the idea that Silver Springs' economic heyday could be resurrected through the introduction of services that are now absent — especially if they zeroed in on the rising market for ecotourism.

As an example, this past week owners of local companies that offer kayaking, zipline rides and scuba diving all expressed interest in bringing their services to Silver Springs, or called for them to be part of the park's future.

On Thursday, many echoed McClain's early call for entrepreneurial involvement.

Bill Ray, owner of a local planning consulting firm, said DEP, faced with an “unprecedented” opportunity, must let the private sector help rev up Silver Springs as an economic engine.

The state must have an economic plan as well as an environmental restoration plan for what was once the “premier” ecotourism destination in the state, he said.

Greg Flanagan, a lawyer in Ocala and avid scuba diver, predicted that diving enthusiasts like him worldwide would come to Silver Springs, bringing their money with them.

“We can't underscore enough the economic impact of allowing recreational diving in Silver Springs,” he said. “Just transferring it to a park doesn't get those people here.”

“We cannot afford to look past the aspect of the economic engine,” said local talk-radio host Buddy Martin.

To turn Silver Springs into a “nice little patch of state park” and not going further, Martin added, would be the equivalent of NASA officials admiring the flight of a rocket they shot from Cape Canaveral without a plan to bring it back down.

“This is a major, major worldwide mecca for ecotourism. We cannot forget that, and Silver Springs can help drive that,” Martin said.

Others, like Guy Marwick, the former director of the Silver River Museum at the state park, wanted Silver Springs to be “a resource-based — resource comes first — state park.”

Marwick appeared bothered by the aggressive push to open the site to business interests and encouraged DEP officials to proceed slowly.

Some concerned about the environment of the park pushed for locating a springs research center on the site to capture scientists and what one speaker called the “academic tourist.”

Lisa Saupp, a local hydrologist and organizer of the county's annual springs festival, recommended that the DEP focus primarily on restoring the springs initially.

“Focus on ecotourism — the eco being ecology and not economy,” she said. “The ecotourism will come if you save the resource.”

“Save the spring first. The economy will come,” said Doug Shearer, a Summerfield veterinarian.

“You need the basis before you go for business,” Shearer added. “Let's not move too fast. Let's get the ecology of this going first, and the rest is going to come.”

Contact Bill Thompson at 867-4117 or bill.thompson@starbanner.com.

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