Step back for Silver Springs
Published: Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 7:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 7:47 p.m.
Just six weeks before Silver Springs becomes Florida's newest park, state environmental regulators have tapped the brakes on the renovation at the attraction.
Senior officials at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said they have stopped most of the planned $4 million upgrade after finding more problems than expected at the 242-acre park.
The officials described the delay as "a step back," taken to ensure they fully understand the infrastructure challenges before them.
Most likely, the work will not resume until after the state takes control of the Silver Springs attraction from Palace Entertainment on Oct. 1, they said.
Rick Mercer, DEP's director of operations, acknowledged that much of the refurbishing effort to this point has been "cosmetic."
But the agency's leaders also maintained that great strides have been made behind the scenes.
For example, the necessary administrative moves — designing and engineering the bigger projects, securing the required permits — have already been accomplished, they said.
"What we call major may not be major to the public," Mercer said, but "we wanted to get it right the first time."
The needed repairs also will require additional funding beyond the $4 million that Palace committed in order to buy its way out of its lease ahead of schedule. How much more is unclear.
"We're not going to know that number for a little while," Mercer said.
That's primarily because DEP still needs to get a handle on the amount of remediation that must be done, he added.
"It's an aging facility, with layer upon layer of rust, rot and decay," Mercer said.
Mercer estimated that about $1.5 million of Palace's guaranteed funding will be paid out by Sept. 15, the date that work is supposed to wrap up so the company and the state can finalize the deal.
Under the deal, Palace must pay the state any unspent funds.
Al Gregory, chief of DEP's Bureau of Park Planning, said the remaining $2.5 million would be set aside in a state trust fund and dedicated solely to Silver Springs.
Marion County Commissioner Stan McClain, the county's point man on Silver Springs since Palace signaled that it wanted out nearly three years ago, said the county tried to tell the DEP how extensive the underlying damage was.
And while the advice of the locals was ignored, McClain said, the state ought to have better understood the problems going in.
DEP officials did inspect the site last year before the transfer, which Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet approved in January.
But Mercer said a recent archeological dig, in addition to the construction work, uncovered conditions that would not have been revealed even with more than a cursory inspection.
"Silver Springs, just because of the age of the facility, has thrown curve balls at all of us, and that has made things a little bit clunky," Mercer said. "We just want to make sure we keep going and accomplish our goal of opening as a state park."
The state's deal with Palace called for the company to fund the repairs in exchange for terminating its lease on Sept. 30.
The agreement allowed the California-based amusement park operator to exit 16 years ahead of schedule.
The DEP budgeted $3.5 million of Palace's cash for that work and set aside the other $500,000 for contingencies.
Some structures, including many coated with asbestos and lead paint, were to be repaired, while dilapidated ones were to be demolished; kiddie rides and animals were to be removed; Ross Allen Island, a favorite attraction at the site, was slated to get a new boardwalk and new bridges compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act; and the water, sewer and stormwater drainage systems were to be modernized.
The DEP identified the latter as a top priority, mirroring the public's concern with the declining quality of the once crystal-clear water gushing from the mammoth springs.
More than a quarter of Palace's money was budgeted to fix the waterworks at the park.
Generally, the plan was to install new lines or salvage still-functioning existing ones, install new pumps, dig out new drainage areas or fix current ones, and haul off buildings on the site and asphalt from the parking lots to facilitate drainage.
Bob Rogers, an Ocala engineer and subcontractor on the project, said DEP approved the permits for that aspect of the project back in June. So far, that's the extent of the work.
"Nothing's been done out there," he said.
During a town hall meeting in Ocala on Aug. 8, however, DEP officials gave a very different impression of the progress at the park, offering a glowing assessment of the project and failing to mention to a roomful of area residents, environmentalists and political figures that major construction had stopped almost two months earlier.
And in a press release issued after that session at Fort King Presbyterian Church, the agency identified a number of "completed" projects.
Among them were stormwater improvements, including "reducing impervious surface, reshaping for better water flow and cleaning out existing ponds," as well as the addition of new ponds "with more contour." That press release remained on the DEP website Saturday, unchanged.
Mercer attributed the rosy pronouncement to a "miscommunication" among DEP staffers.
The agency instead should have pointed out that the design and permitting of the project, rather than the construction itself, was finished, he said.
Contractors say some of the work that DEP cited in that document, such as the entry boardwalk, has been completed and was done well.
Matt Mitchell, chief of DEP's Bureau of Design and Construction, noted a list of physical — as opposed to paper — accomplishments to this point.
Besides the entry walkway, the boardwalk overlooking the main springhead and rotted wood in many "essential" structures have been replaced; buildings have been painted; dead shrubs throughout the property have been removed; and the glass-bottom boats are being repaired.
Mitchell said DEP would determine as part of the "step back" when construction of the water lines and retention ponds would begin.
"This is a major project to get the water right," Mitchell said.
Marc Glissman, Palace's general manager, declined to comment in detail about the hold-up at the site.
"We continue communication and planning on the construction and the scope that has been made public through DEP," Glissman said in an email.
The revised lease granted Palace leeway to select the contractor, with DEP's approval, and McKinney Building Co. of Gainesville was the winning bidder.
Documents show McKinney Building was ready to go when DEP released its initial project list in late February. The initial report shows that McKinney assembled an array of help to get the project going.
Jim McKinney, owner of the company, declined to comment on the work stoppage.
He did, however, refer a reporter to the monthly updates he was required to submit about progress at the site.
The documents indicate much of the initial work was proceeding, but it seems too quick for DEP's liking.
On April 9, the agency directed McKinney to stop work until DEP gave him the green light in writing.
That didn't occur until May 28, records show. At that time, DEP also delivered a revised project list.
By Memorial Day, Palace had expended about $377,000 toward the renovation, records indicate.
McKinney's subsequent reports detail disputes between him and the state, so that by June 18, the DEP put on hold much of the major work.
The contractor's reports indicate the state disagreed with him over things such as replacing rotten doors at Twin Oaks Mansion, sidewalk repairs, selection of subcontractors, the cost of copying plans and whether McKinney completed some projects without permits — something Marion County's Building Safety department said did not happen.
On one hand, the state suggested McKinney's costs were above normal. On the other, McKinney noted that the DEP rejected his choice of a subcontractor to work on the drainage system, preferring instead a company that wanted to charge almost $40,000 more.
In all, according to McKinney's summary, the DEP has declined to pay him $106,773.
The revised lease says DEP pledged to not make its approval of specific projects "unreasonably withheld, delayed, or conditioned."
Mercer, the agency's operations chief, said the DEP has projects going on at more than 140 of its parks, and he characterized the disagreements with McKinney Building as no different than "what we face at any other state park."
He added that DEP was "very pleased" with the contractor's work.
Gregory, the DEP's park planning director, said after Sept. 15 the state, and not Palace, would control who finishes the job. That would be decided through the state's regular procurement process.