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Silver Springs' anniversary: State operation a work in progress

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OCALA, Florida — Gone are the zoo animals, exotic bird shows, kiddie rides and captive alligators.

On the anniversary of the state taking over operations of Silver Springs Nature Theme Park and folding the 246-acre attraction into the neighboring Silver Springs State Park, most of the changes can be seen by what is no longer there.

Park manager Sally Lieb has overseen the demolition of more than 20 buildings, many of which were part of a hodge-podge of structures built as new attractions were added in hopes of coaxing a few more tourists away from Orlando.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which now owns and oversees the park, has poured about $4 million into the site. It has patched roofs, dug up leaking utility lines and repaired electrical and dilapidated air conditioning systems. Of the $4 million, $3 million came from the previous park lease holder, while $1 million came from FDEP itself. About $1 million is left to spend unless more comes from the Legislature.

The amount of work overhauling the park wasn't a surprise to Lieb, who came to the park more than a year ago.

"My first clue (there were problems) were these little puddles everywhere with cones (to warn of standing water) rather than repairs," she said.

The state took over operation of the aging tourist attraction on Oct. 1, 2013, from Palace Entertainment. The private amusement company agreed to hand over $4 million in exchange for getting out of the lease years early. It would have ended in 2029. Palace operated the park for 11 years.

Operating the park now is like walking an environmental tightrope, Lieb said.

One the one side is DEP's mission of preserving and restoring the area's resources. On the other is accommodating the public and maintaining the culture of the park.

"We do defy our mission sometimes to meet public demand. We're bending it a little to give people what they want," she said.

"There are certain cultural aspects that people are attached to . so the culture of the park is part of our mission, too," she said, citing the park's grand entrance.

The springs have been a tourist attraction since the mid-1800s, and its commercial glass-bottom boats have operated since the 1890s.

Animal attractions have been a popular part of the park for decades, but they were the first to go as the state prepared to take over.

Lieb walked the east side of the park on a recent day and stood by the remains of a 1-foot-thick, 10-foot-high wall.

She pointed to an empty field that was once home to the park's cougars. The few feet of wall is all that remains. Lieb hopes to let the field return to its natural state.

Then she pointed to a canal dividing where she stood and the five-acre Ross Allen Island, where captive alligators once were housed behind glass.

The two bridges onto the island are gone now. They didn't meet state standards. All remnants of the boardwalk on the island are also gone. The old boardwalk overwhelmed and took away from the island experience, Lieb said, adding, "Now it's a community with cypress trees and beautiful wildlife."

The plan is to build a new bridge onto the island and a more modest boardwalk. The estimated cost is about $800,000 — about the same amount as the park's annual budget. The park has 30 full- and part-time employees.

Lieb then pointed to a small open field.

"This is where the bleachers used to be, and the bird show was over there," she said, pointing to the other side of a concrete slab walkway.

An old speaker hung from a tree nearby — the only tangible reminder of the shows once staged there.

Left as it was is the Jeep safari ride staging area, where customers once got onto the vehicles that drove through terrain covered with monkeys and captive bears, horses, emus and llamas. All the exhibit structures from the 15-minute Jeep ride are gone.

Lieb said the animal removal was a decision by the state to not be in the zoo business.

There was an exception: Hundreds of rhesus monkeys still roam the park. The state stopped allowing private hunters to remove the primates when the public learned they were being sold to a medical research lab.

The popular glass-bottom boats are still there, but the park's fleet has been reduced by half to eight crafts.

The park now contracts with Silver Springs Management as its vendor.

PHOTO: Visitor walk a trail near the former birds of prey area at Silver Springs State Park in Silver Springs, Florida on Tuesday  Sept. 28, 2014. The State took over operation of the historic tourist attraction on Oct. 1, 2013. The park service has spent the year renovating returning the park to a more natural state. (AP Photo/The Ocala Star-Banner, Alan Youngblood)
Visitor walk a trail near the former birds of prey area at Silver Springs State Park in Silver Springs, Florida on Tuesday Sept. 28, 2014. The State took over operation of the historic tourist attraction on Oct. 1, 2013. The park service has spent the year renovating returning the park to a more natural state. (AP Photo/The Ocala Star-Banner, Alan Youngblood)

Along with the demolition, Lieb cited some new construction as part of the park's progress. That includes a new canoe and kayak launch facility, new wood boardwalk and hand rail around the spring, and new cedar roofs for many remaining buildings. A gift shop, ice cream parlor, restaurant, art gallery and educational center are still operating.

Wild Waters water park also will remain open, at least through 2016, after which the lease with Silver Springs Management to operate the water park ends, Lieb said. The future of Wild Waters will be decided then.

Still on the agenda is to open part of the spring area to swimming, but the logistics haven't been worked out yet, Lieb said. Swimming may be allowed during the 2015/2016 season.

Also remaining open is the Twin Oaks Amphitheater, where concerts will continue to be held.

The park also has about 1,000 parking spaces. The plan is to remove about half, with grass for overflow parking during special events, Lieb said.

The park has a mandate to be as financially self-reliant as possible, so it needs 500,000-1 million visitors per year to accomplish that, Lieb thinks.

Most of the patrons at the park recently said they won't be returning. More than 100 came to the park despite some occasional drizzle.

Those patrons included Janet Pigeon, 79, her daughter, granddaughter and grandson. They said that the park needed to offer more.

"There are enough rivers and springs in Florida to canoe and kayak. The little Jeep ride and animals: that was great. You have to have something more (than what is currently at the park)," Pigeon said.

Her daughter, Sandy Winsett, was also disappointed.

"I used to come here on school (field trips)," Winsett said. "I guess we'll have to find another park."

Katey Smith, 35, came to the park with her husband, 11-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.

"We thought there were still animals here," Smith said. "It's great that they're bringing it back to its natural state, but all you have is boat rides for the kids now."

Her son, Ian Erickson, agreed.

"If it was like it used to be, with animals, Jeep rides and a petting zoo, I would come back," he said. "But if not, I would probably go to Disney."

Tom Savage and his wife, Vanessa, came from Lake City. They had planned to spend the day at the park and get a Ocala motel room for the night.

"It's (noon) and we're already done. There used to be alligators and animals. What are you going to replace that with? Glass-bottom boats are not enough," Tom Savage said. "We won't drive back 80 miles to come here."

Marion County Commissioner Carl Zalak, who advocated taking the park out of private hands, said the park remains an ecotourism opportunity.

He said he would like to see swimming and activities like zip lining at the park. He wants the park opened for festivals and attractions like car shows.

So far, after a single year of state operation, Zalak said he is satisfied with the progress.

"I think they're moving in the right direction, but not as fast as we all wanted," he said.

Commissioner Stan McClain said he believes people will come back to the park once they understand its focus is on its natural resources rather than sideshow attractions.

"This isn't the same park that we had 50-60 years ago," McClain said.

The focus is now more about connecting the park with other protected state lands and long-term goals rather than immediate changes, he said.

"Whether we're doing it (developing and protecting the park) or (DEP) is doing it, we're partners with them," he said. "I'm excited about the future."


Information from: Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner, http://www.starbanner.com/

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