Silver Springs' unveiling as state park set Tuesday


Silver Springs prepares to open
Silver Springs prepares to open

Florida State Park boat captains Charlene Johnson, left, and Tina Miller prepare to take glass bottom boat out and get familiar with them at Silver Springs State Park in Silver Springs, FL on Monday September 30, 2013. All of the veteran captains are coming back so Johnson and Miller will only be used if needed. (Alan Youngblood/OCALA STAR-BANNER)2013

Alan Youngblood/Star-Banner
Published: Monday, September 30, 2013 at 7:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 30, 2013 at 7:38 p.m.

The marriage between Florida’s oldest tourist location and the state park system becomes official Tuesday, with Silver Springs featuring something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.

Tuesday’s visitors to the attraction, which is now merged with the adjacent Silver River State Park to form Silver Springs State Park, will recognize some familiar attributes that helped build the site’s reputation over the decades.

Exemplifying the old are the glass-bottomed boats, some version of which have given visitors to Silver Springs a peek at life below the water’s surface since the 1870s.

The vessels will chug from the docks at the heart of the park three times a day, piloted by the same veteran captains, including a trio who collectively have logged more than 150 years ferrying people up and down the Silver River, according to Joel Wiessner, a partner in Silver Springs Management in Ocala, the new concessionaire at Silver Springs.

As for what’s borrowed, Twin Oaks Mansion, the site of Silver Springs’ popular music concerts, remains under renovation, Wiessner said.

The facility’s facelift will be completed in the weeks ahead, he said, in time for a new roster of musical acts. The first is expected to hit the stage in February, Wiessner said.

Wiessner has indicated that he is working on the schedule with JVC Media, the New York-based broadcaster that bought five Ocala radio stations in the spring.

While declining to identify any of the performers involved in those talks, Wiessner has suggested they will be more contemporary and better known than the aging rockers and country crooners that typically populated the roster when Palace Entertainment, the California-based amusement park operator, ran the shows.

The Silver Springs concert series was the brainchild of Bill Sims, a guru in the state’s tourism industry who ran the park in the 1990s for a couple of different companies before the property was sold to the state in 1993.

Signifying the blue, of course, will be the water.

Though not as pristine as in the days when Hollywood icon Lloyd Bridges was filming his adventure series “Sea Hunt” at the park, the water at Silver Springs is the main draw, and work is underway to reverse decades of inattention that have fed its decline.

Marion County and the state have spent millions of dollars on anti-pollution projects to curtail the flow of nitrates that have robbed Silver Springs of its clarity.

The work is continuing, as the county is leading an effort to define the watershed around the springs and to develop a plan to attack the sources of the contaminants.

Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller noted that besides preserving the park, the state is funding projects that are expected to remove 350 tons of nitrogen a year from Silver Springs.

Efforts to help Silver Springs, she added, will receive $20 million of the $37 million in springs-restoration spending that Gov. Rick Scott announced in September.

Finally, what’s new at Silver Springs could be applied in a couple of ways.

For instance, Wiessner offered high praise to the state and the volunteers for improving the aesthetic appeal of the place.

In January, Scott and the Cabinet amended Palace’s lease to allow the company to leave Silver Springs 16 years ahead of schedule.

Palace, in return, was to spend $4 million on renovations.

The contractor hired by Palace rehabilitated the walkway entering the park, fixed the boardwalk overlooking the main springhead and replaced rotted wood in many of the park’s structures.

The contractor also painted buildings, while dead or non-native shrubbery was eradicated.

Yet last month DEP officials acknowledged that they had halted much of the work, with less than half of Palace’s money spent, because some problems were bigger than first imagined.

Still, Wiessner said the changes, which include the $50,000 in work that his company has done, are noticeable.

“The state and the Citizens Support Organization have done a tremendous job in cleaning the place up,” he said.

But also new is the theme of Silver Springs.

One condition of Palace’s early departure was that the vestiges of the attraction’s past life as an amusement park and part-time zoo were to be removed — scuttled in favor of a return to a more natural setting.

Wiessner said the most prominent new feature will be a kayak launch.

Silver Springs Management, or SSM, has approval initially to run up to 40 kayaks a day and has subcontracted the work to Ocala-based Eco-Recreation Management, which operates as Discovery Kayak Tours.

Wiessner said that is a first step to recreating Silver Springs as an “ecotourism space.”

His hope is to add features such as a zip line, a rock wall, bicycle rentals and other things of interest to outdoor enthusiasts. He is also negotiating with DEP about allowing swimming at the springs.

All of that will be finalized in an engineering plan for DEP that will be submitted in a few weeks, Wiessner said.

SSM also seeks to make the retail merchandise more like an ecotourism outfitter would sell.

And while visitors Tuesday will be able to buy basic foodstuffs like hamburgers and hot dogs, Wiessner ultimately plans to locate a high-end eatery within the park, with a “surf, sand and sky” theme.

Wiessner, who is joined in the venture by a partner, Bobby Genovese, owner of BG Capital Group, a private equity firm based in the Bahamas, said he believes the public will like what’s available as the plan unfolds.

“We’re very excited, and we couldn’t be happier. It’s been a long time coming,” he said.

“We just ask that people be patient with us and get ready for some great things for Ocala.”

DEP officials also seem excited that the transfer is completed.

According to Miller, park rangers will be on hand Tuesday to present programs on park history, the health of the spring and wildlife.

The Education Center will be open and offer exhibits and information about the spring.

“I am excited to introduce Silver Springs State Park to the people and visitors of Florida,” Donald Forgione, director of the Florida Park Service, said in a prepared statement.

“Silver Springs is special and represents ‘old Florida.’ I look forward to protecting it and helping people enjoy and appreciate all that it offers.”

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