(An updated and revised column for the one that will appear next month’s Best Version Media magazines that were printed prior to the latest development.)
BY BUDDY MARTIN
WANTED: High profile business that would attract millions of visitors a year to Marion County, create hundreds of jobs and provide local residents with an interactive green space which their families could enjoy year-round.
Is this possible? Well, yes.
There is little doubt that Kevin Sheilly is going to be successful in his new job as CEO of the chamber
economic partnership for Ocala/Marion County and, in fact, has jumped off to a fast start with high energy and determination.
But could he tackle a project like the one mentioned above?
No, not even the man I have dubbed “Magic” for his inexplicable good timing could duplicate Silver Springs.
He doesn’t have to, because we’ve already got it – had it in some fashion for 150 years.
There is simply no way to re-create what God has given us.
It was announced Saturday that a “local” firm would be named the only park concessionaire.
(State environmental regulators have inked a deal with a concessionaire for Silver Springs.)
Silver Springs Management, headed up by Joel Weissner of What’s Up Ocala, has a three-year deal with the state. His partner is Bobby Genovese, owner of BG Capital Group out of the Bahamas. Apparently SSM was the only vendor cleared by the state.
Therefore, Silver Springs will be reopened and operated by the State of Florida.
It should be a day to celebrate for all Marion Countians, who will finally see the old walls of private business torn down and access granted once again to one of nature’s most beautiful playgrounds.
I am very pleased that The Springs has been somewhat returned to the people of Marion County, albeit run by the state, and hold out great hope that it can become an economic force in eco-tourism as a state park and tourist attraction. This is Part B to the play of Saving Silver Springs, Part A being the final plans for cleaning up the contamination.
So far, so good.
That’s as far as I’m willing to go here until somebody explains just how “local” Silver Springs Management really is, whether this means jobs for our community, and how much of the money spent in our county will actually remain here.
For my tastes, far too much behind-closed-door dealings have gone into the negotiations of such matters.
Full disclosure here: Although I was a member of a concerned group of citizens who began working on a
plan inferred by the name, Save Silver Springs, we were never privy to the inside baseball machinations of behind-closed-door discussions by the state and, in some cases, the county. And there was no private agenda for anybody in the group, as far as I know.
Apparently there were negotiations in progress all along.
The one member of the Marion County Commission who was willing to come forward and share some insights seemed originally said he was bumfuzzled at that time about the process and the final outcome of the state’s concessionaire choice, but claimed he was “out of the loop.” At the same time, there were other issues of environmental concerns which he feared might present an even bigger obstacle and cost millions of dollars.
Why, I asked then – and am doing so now – wasn’t the public “kept in the loop?”
This never was about which group would land the concessions, but about process. Did the county ask for bids? Did the state? Perhaps, but it never really felt like an open book. And I just don’t like the feeling that my state, county or city is operating in the shadows.
Oh, there were numerous public meetings by the state and some dialogue by the county, but unless I and a
dozen members of our SSS group missed it, the matter of who would operate the “attraction” wasn’t discussed publicly in any length. Apparently that was only disclosed to those who had “skin in the game.”
Funny, I have always felt that we all owned a piece of The Springs and that our equity had been passed down for generations.
I admit to being “old school” on this one, as well as my views on the glorious past of Silver Springs and still hold
dearly the memories of growing up as boy who took his
swimming lessons in The Springs, who worked there as a soda jerk and later as a driver for the Tommy Bartlett’s Deer Ranch sleigh. My father was the first public relations director there before I was born. He was the inspiration for a young photographer named Bruce Mozert to invent the underwater camera.
During that era, “Florida’s Famous Silver Springs” was known worldwide. Top movies were shot there and it was nothing to see Hollywood’s elite cavorting about. Since at least the mid 19th century, the natural beauty of The Springs attracted visitors from around the country and the world. Glass bottom boat tours of the springs began in the late 1870s. Carl Ray and W.M. “Shorty” Davidson began operating it as an attraction, taking over managents of the land around the headwaters.
This is not about trying to live in the past or to say that the SSM group can’t make the Springs a successful business and partner with our community. We wish them the best.
I want to remain positive here and cheer the progress that has been made, so like so many others, I’m sitting back now and observing what steps will be taken to do this the right way.
Silver Springs may be run by the state, but remember: It sits on Marion County ground which, as far as I am concerned, will always belong to the people who reside and work here.