NORTH PORT – Warm Mineral Springs will be open by the end of April as the city plans to take over operations itself, but the timing isn't soon enough for frustrated residents who spoke to the North Port City Commission Thursday.
When the park does open, it will be under direct control of North Port Parks and Recreation and not the current vendor, National and State Park Concessions, as the board voted to give the vendor 90 days' notice that its contract will be terminated.
Warm Mineral Springs closed Sept. 27, in anticipation of the arrival of Hurricane Ian.
After the storm, the three historic buildings at the park were condemned and the park has remained closed ever since.
During a staff presentation this week, City Manager Jerome Fletcher said that significant progress has been made to return the site to pre-hurricane conditions.
The cost to reopen the park on a temporary basis has been estimated at between $85,500 to $119,500, with the monthly operating costs pegged at between $13,000 and $15,000 a month.
Before Thursday, city staff had been pursuing an amendment to the contract with National and State Park Concessions to reopen the park temporarily, then bow out once a public-private partnership is established to develop the overall site.
Currently the city is evaluating a proposal from Warm Mineral Springs Development Group LLC that would see it lease the 21.6-acre area around the springs for 99 years and acquire ownership of the other 61.4 acres that it would develop.
As part of that process, the city must also solicit competitive proposals.
Change in springs reopening plan – again
In October, the North Port City Commission directed city staff to negotiate a deal with Fort Pierce-based National and State Park Concessions that would allow the vendor to reopen the park on a temporary basis. The tentative agreement was being reviewed by the office of City Attorney Amber Slayton.
But the 5-1 vote to give the vendor 90-day notice of termination means that agreement is now moot and North Port will endeavor to reopen the park and staff it with city personnel.
City Commissioner Debbie McDowell voted in dissent because National and State Park Concessions has experience operating Warm Mineral Springs, while city staff does not.
In addition to serving notice to National and State Park Concessions, the commission approved a motion by Commissioner Phil Stokes that directed Fletcher to have staff reopen the springs, “with just the simple stipulation that it will be done as quickly as humanly possible.”
The board also voted to have Fletcher give the commission and community regular updates on the progress.
The city needs several things to happen before Warm Mineral Springs can reopen, chief among them are restrooms, power, pumphouse repairs, a temporary facility to serve as admissions gateway and an American With Disabilities Act compliant walkway from the admissions area to the springs.
Temporary fencing must also be put in place, so visitors do not wander into the three historic buildings or other areas of the park that are not ready for visitors.
With modular buildings in short supply, Fletcher noted that as recently as Thursday morning staff discussed the possibility of using a secure tent instead of a modular building for the admissions area.
“It would not be ideal but this would be another version of us just putting it together,” Fletcher said.
On an ambitious schedule – pending approvals from the health department and city building officials – the park could be open within 60 days, Fletcher said.
“The benefit of that is speed, the downfall of that is we would still have to perform work while it is open – more work than we would like to,” he added.
Later in the meeting both he and Parks and Recreation Director Sandy Pfundheller said that a more realistic term would be the end of April.
That would mean people who value the 86-degree water of the springs for its purported healing properties may have to wait almost seven months, dating back to its closure in September, before they can visit.
“We’re fighting for pain relief, healing our rashes or whatever it may be,” Heidi Kublik said during public comment.
She followed South Venice resident Susan Gastony – who can trace her ancestry back to the Cheyenne Sioux Tribe, and voiced concern about potential hotel development on an area that is also Native American burial grounds.
“I don’t think any of us would like big hotels on the place where we rest,” Gastony said. “Where I would rest – and where these people rest – they would be happy to see people enjoying water that gives them life.
“I hope you will listen to all of the patrons who consider the springs a sacred and healing place.”
The soonest the city could strike a public-private partnership is in the spring as well – which could mean city staff would only have to operate the park for a few weeks before turning over its operation to the eventual private partner.
Jack E. Bobo, president of National and State Park Concessions, said during public comment that he told the city manager’s office that they would only need three weeks to get an admissions building up and running – but didn’t address the length of time needed to acquire a portable restroom facility.
The one in place prior to Ian was damaged and removed.
Board members dismissed Bobo’s comments, with Commissioner Pete McDowell speculating that Bobo was playing to the crowd – which would be happy with portable bathrooms and immediate access to Warm Mineral Springs.
While residents who spoke at the meeting are in favor of reopening the springs, located on a 21.6-acre parcel and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, they are against commercial development of the 61.4-acre park that surrounds it.
Bill Goetz, a board member of the Warm Mineral Springs Little Salt Spring Archaeological Society, noted that as the only hot springs on the Florida peninsula Warm Mineral Springs is a geological wonder.
He reminded the board that the previous plan – carved out through public workshops and developed by consultant Kimley Horn – called for restoration of the three Sarasota School of Architecture structures that were built for the Florida Quadricentennial and allowed for significantly less intensive development of the 61.4-acre park surrounding the springs.
“If you're going to continue with this path, you're going to destroy Warm Mineral Springs,” Goetz said.
That plan was tossed aside when bids to restore the sales building, spa and cyclorama, all of which are on the National Register of Historic Places, came in twice what was budgeted.
North Port resident Zhanna Yefimov, one of several speakers who oppose the commercial development, stressed the importance of reopening access to the springs – which many speakers refer to as “The Lake.”
“For now, if the city has the money, why can’t we just concentrate on opening the Warm Mineral Springs Park,” she said.
James Strauser, who at an earlier meeting said the city had to do a better job of informing the public, lamented that, “We’re almost 90 days into this and we’re still reviewing the same things that we were before.”
Earle Kimel primarily covers south Sarasota County for the Herald-Tribune and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism with a digital subscription to the Herald-Tribune.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Warm Mineral Springs may reopen temporarily by April 29