Commentary

At Florida hot spring, developers get a warm reception

City running Warm Mineral Springs ignores public’s wishes in favor of builders’ vague promises

December 15, 2022 7:00 am

An aerial view of Warm Mineral Springs in North Port taken during the 1070s. Source: Bill Goetz

Florida has a lot of dinosaurs these days. I don’t mean the folks lining up for the Early Bird Special at Red Lobster, I mean actual dinosaurs, or rather statues of them.

They range from Sexy Rexy, the Beach Boulevard dinosaur in Jacksonville, to Dino, the gas station shaped like a dinosaur in Weeki Wachee Springs. Dinosaur World in Plant City used to have 200 on display, but in 2007 somebody stole one — no one knows how or why. It’s still out there somewhere, no doubt tailing Jeff Goldblum.

The irony is that back when real dinosaurs roamed the Earth, Florida had none. Back then, most of the state was under water. Once it dried out, though, prehistoric Florida was stalked by plenty of saber-tooth tigers and mammoths.

We know this because fossils of those long-ago creatures have turned up in various places around the state, including Warm Mineral Springs in North Port. Warm Mineral Springs is unlike any of the other springs in Florida. And a lot of its fans are afraid it’s about to be destroyed by developers.

Bill Goetz. Source: the subject

“They will break the spring,” predicted Bill Goetz, vice chair of the North Port Historic and Cultural Advisory Board. He fears the rumbling of new construction will deconstruct the ancient limestone beneath, and that the commissioners won’t realize the danger until it’s too late.

Unlike the other big-name springs in Florida, such as Silver Springs and Wakulla Springs, Warm Mineral Springs is not owned by the state park system. The spring and its 61.4-acre park belong to the city of North Port in southern Sarasota County.

Unlike those cool, clear springs gushing to the surface in North Florida, it’s a spring where the water is a constant 85 degrees. It usually looks murky because it’s full of minerals, which some people claim provide a variety of health benefits for those who take the time to sit and soak.

Despite the water’s sulfurous smell, the spring strongly appeals to people from Eastern European countries, according to Rick Kilby, author of the book “Florida’s Healing Waters: Gilded Age Mineral Springs, Seaside Resorts, and Health Spas.”

“The biggest Ukrainian population in Florida is in North Port, and they came for the spring,” Kilby told me. “What I love about it is that it’s the closest thing we have to a European spa.”

Right now, a lot of those folks are pretty ticked off at the North Port City Commission. I watched a Dec. 8 commission meeting during which a parade of ladies with names like Elena and Svetlana complained bitterly that the place they call “the lake” has been closed since Hurricane Ian. They were giving the commissioners the kind of looks they would give to Vladimir “Vlad the Invader” Putin.

At one point, the CEO of the concession that runs the place said his company could have it reopened in just three weeks. His announcement drew applause from the crowd, despite the mayor’s repeated threats to clear the room of any noisy people.

Instead of giving the CEO the green light, the commissioners pulled the plug on their contract with that company. They were totally sold on handing the whole place over to a recently created company that wants to build a resort hotel, restaurant, and 300 residences on top of that fragile geological formation.

Gee, what could possibly go wrong?

Bones on the mantel

Bill Royal is the swashbuckling adventurer who put Warm Mineral Springs on the map. By “swashbuckling,” I mean this is a guy who titled his memoir “The Man Who Rode Sharks.”

A retired Army colonel, he was an avid scuba diver. With his fellow shark enthusiast, Mote Marine Laboratory founder Eugenie Clark, Royal started diving into Warm Mineral Springs in the 1950s to explore its depths.

Soon he started showing off the fossils he found below the surface.

Bill Royal with bones he pulled from Warm Mineral Springs. Source: Warm Mineral Springs website

He found the remains of prehistoric sloths. He found mastodons. He found a lot more. One grisly photo shows him hauling up a clothes basket full of human skulls and skeletons. One of the skulls he found still had brain matter inside, preserved by the spring’s unusual chemistry.

Some of the bones Royal brought to the surface were left scattered around the springs for visitors to peruse. Others wound up as part of Royal’s home fireplace, a morbid construction detail that made it look like something out of an Addams Family cartoon.

Scientists were skeptical about what he’d pulled from the spring, figuring it must be a hoax. But then the bones were independently dated at 10,000 to 11,500 years, making them the earliest human remains discovered in North America.

Meanwhile, there were plans to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Spanish colonizing Florida with events in Pensacola, St. Augustine, and Warm Mineral Springs, Kilby said. The spring’s owner at the time was touting it as the site of the Fountain of Youth that Juan Ponce de Leon had been hunting — a story that turns out to be as reliable as the one about George Washington and that cherry tree.

The owners hired as their contractor a big-league baseball pitcher with the delightful name of Early Wynn. He selected someone from the renowned Sarasota School of Architecture, Jack West, to design the buildings to house the display.

The display included an elaborate “cyclorama” — narrated by broadcast legend Lowell Thomas — that offers a colorful version of life around the spring right up until the arrival of the thirsty Spanish.

Those buildings were real “Wynners.” They are now regarded as an artistic treasure and are on the National Register of Historic Places. But they were all so damaged by Hurricane Ian in September that they have been officially condemned, shutting down the spring operation even though the spring itself is fine.

And that’s where things stand right now — except for the part about handing the whole thing over to a consortium of developers.

A graveyard for grand plans

Someone should make an elaborate cyclorama of all the grand plans that private owners had for exploiting — er, excuse me, dressing up Warm Mineral Springs.

According to a recent Sarasota Herald-Tribune rundown, over the years the place was going to be a health spa, a hospital, a sanitorium, a health resort, and a conference center with a “Fountain of Youth Institute for Natural Healing.”

Somehow none of that got built. The spring may rejuvenate its users, but it’s turned into a graveyard for grand development plans.

The city took over the operation in 2014, then looked for someone to run it. One company wanted to operate the spring but also add a hotel, a conference center, medical suites, and condominiums.

Instead, the city hired a company called National and State Park Concessions that promised to keep the park a park. In exchange for $50,000 a year from the city, the company sells tickets to the spring and hands over revenue of $300,000 and $400,000 a year.

City officials hired an engineering company named Kimley-Horn to come up with a plan for the site. The company held a series of public meetings in late 2018 and early 2019, which seems like a smart move to me.

Based on the comments of people who used the spring, Kimley-Horn came up with a $19.5 million phased plan that called, in its first phase, for restoring the historic buildings and hooking the place up to water and sewer.

The second phase: adding walking trails, a canopy boardwalk, and two lookout towers, plus an event pavilion where couples could hold weddings. In other words, it would keep much of the park a park.

All that went out the window when the city took the plan out to bid. The only bidder wanted nearly twice the $9 million the city had set aside for the first phase.

Then, in mid-September, someone new popped up with a much grander plan for the site, one that harks back to all those fanciful duds of the past.

Calling itself Warm Mineral Springs Development Group LLC, this entity had been formed only days before the commission meeting by a trio of local developers: Ashley Bloom, Michael “Mickey” Alessio, and Mike MacKinnon.

I prefer to call them the Three Amigos, riding in with flashy promises and a vague plan for success and glory.

Their siren song about partnering with the city to create new value at the spring lured the commissioners into tentatively saying yes to whatever the developers wanted. Even if that was not what their constituents wanted.

“The historic Warm Mineral Springs is in for a wholesale makeover under a plan approved by North Port leaders,” the Herald-Tribune reported in September, just ahead of the hurricane.

There’d be “a restaurant and resort hotel and spa, as well as destination residences, which would be marketed for sale to potential clients in Eastern Europe.”

And did I mention the museum? And the zipline?

Out of curiosity, I contacted Bloom, who has lived in North Port for 20 years, and asked him some questions. I got some very interesting answers.

All preliminary

Why, I asked Bloom, had he and his partners suddenly popped up to bid on a total spring makeover?

“Obviously, we think that there’s a lot of potential in the springs,” Bloom told me. He called it “a unique amenity.”

When I asked him about the widespread public opposition, he said “I can certainly understand the public’s concern about things changing.”

Then I asked my main question: People who are familiar with the spring are worried that the construction work and equipment will shake the ground so much it will play havoc with the geology at the site. Had the Three Amigos explored that potential problem with springs experts or geologists?

“No,” he said.

He explained that it’s too early in the process for them to line up any experts to advise them on whether they can build what they are promising to build: “We have not engaged anyone, nor would we.”

He emphasized that the development that has everyone upset won’t happen until Phase Two in their plan. Fine, I said, how soon would you be getting to that phase? And how much would it cost?

Bloom couldn’t answer my questions.

He didn’t know how long it would take to start building the resort hotel and everything else that had attracted the commissioners to the plan.

And he had no estimate for what it would cost either the developers or the city.

In fact, he said, “the only cost estimate we have is the one the city did” for the first phase, the one that calls for repairing the historic buildings.

“All of it’s preliminary,” he said.

He also said that, although the commissioners were looking to the Three Amigos to help them out with reopening the spring, that’s not part of the partnership agreement they’d proposed.

“One doesn’t have anything to do with the other,” he told me.

A swift kick

To sum up: The city turned down an offer to reopen the spring in three weeks in favor of cutting a deal with a company with a conceptual plan that may not actually work.

That deal won’t have the spring ready to reopen before March at the earliest, according to the city manager. Yet that’s what the commissioners favored.

You can see why the members of the Svetlana Brigade at last week’s meeting were visibly annoyed. Their joints are hurting. They’re missing their regular soak. If they could, they would’ve given all the commissioners a swift kick in the сідниці.

The good news is that this is not quite a done deal. The city hasn’t signed anything binding yet. There are some legal hoops they have to jump through, which means there’s still time to convince the commissioners to do what the public wants, not what the Amigos asked for.

Personally, I hope that every outraged Svetlana and Elena in North Port rises up like the dinosaurs at “Jurassic Park.” I hope they start chasing their commissioners around as if they were that T-rex chasing Jeff Goldblum. I hope they buttonhole them in the Publix produce aisle and harangue them at the Swim with Santa.

Failing that, maybe they can conjure up the Ghost of North Port Past to haunt their dreams, rattling the bones from Bill Royal’s fireplace.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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