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Silver Springs State Park Debate: To Protect Or Profit...Or Both?

Jessica Palombo

Central Florida’s Silver Springs attraction could soon become a state park. A public forum on the topic attracted hundreds of people this week.

Ocala’s Vanguard High School auditorium was filled to capacity for the Silver Springs forum. More than 50 people took the microphone to give the state their input.

It’s the only spring in Florida still managed by a private company. And that company, Spanish-owned Palace Entertainment, is trying to be let go from its lease before it expires in 2029.

For most of the speakers at the forum, the answer to a new state park at the spring is a resounding yes.

Gina Evers, of Ocala, said, “Governor Scott famously says, ‘Let’s get to work.’ Well, I agree. Let’s get to work on something meaningful.”

Like many of the commenters, she said there shouldn’t be any private business profiting off of the springs.

“You wanna do business in Florida? Then you support our values, which is protecting the natural resources for our children and grandchildren. If you don’t want to do that, then go somewhere else,” she said.

Audubon of Florida’s Charles Lee said Silver Spring’s natural resources have deteriorated since the state bought the land 20 years ago and started leasing it out to private managers.

“And what has happened since then is there has been one after another failed attempts at public-private partnerships with various management companies. And that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in today. It is time to end that cycle of failure and have this managed in the same way that the rest of our state park system is managed,” Lee said.

But, in a room where it often seemed like ‘profit’ was a dirty word, there were some who said they see an economic opportunity in Silver Springs that’s too good to pass up, especially for local businesses.

Republican state lawmaker Dennis Baxley, who represents Ocala in the Florida House, said he would like to see park management function as a three-legged stool, with state and local governments as two of the legs.    

“At the third leg of the stool, there is an involvement for private sector to make sure that we don’t unload a lot of undue cost onto taxpayers,” Baxley said.

And Ocala’s Rock Gibboney said, he has a plan for a public-private partnership at Silver Springs that’s getting the attention of state lawmakers like Baxley and Republican Sen. Alan Hays.

“I plead with you. Let’s drop our differences and work together for the goal and not for the petty things,” Gibboney said to the crowd.

Gibboney has done it before. As president of the Rotary Club Sportsplex, he brought ball fields to Marion County by working with state and local governments. And he and his partners want to do it again at the springs with an ecotourism venture.

“Green Bay Packers are a non-for-profit corporation in the NFL, and they make a lot of money,” he said. “That is a model we can use.”

Still, others are skeptical that anyone other than the state park service should be managing Silver Springs, which is plagued by algae blooms, declining fish populations and rapidly falling water levels. Paul Spearman, of Ocklawaha, said it’s a very emotional issue for him.

“We can’t do this. We can’t do this to our grandchildren. We can’t sell them out for a few dollars,” he said. “We need the money. We need economic growth, but not at this cost, people.”

If the state decides to make Silver Springs a park, it will hold another public forum to get input on the plan. For now, it’s negotiating with property manager Palace Entertainment about when, how and if to end its lease.

For more news updates from Jessica Palombo, follow her at @Jessica_WFSU.