The pitfalls of government owning a tourist destination are front and center in south Sarasota County. Now the future of a multimillion-dollar site is in jeopardy.
Participants: North Port City Commission, Sarasota County Commission and Warm Mineral Springs, one of the largest of roughly 700 springs in Florida. The springs are on 81 acres in North Port, where the water is embedded with 51 minerals that are said to have rejuvenation and healing powers.
Decision: The commissions are battling how to proceed with management, control and development of Warm Mineral Springs, which had more than 120,000 visitors in 2012. The commissions jointly purchased the springs, in the city of North Port, for $5.5 million in late 2010.
The situation reached its first low point Dec. 18, when the North Port City Commission, by a 3-2 vote, decided to sell its 50% stake in the springs. That decision essentially voided an agreement both commissions unanimously reached in July, when the plan was to invite private developers to bid on a wide variety of potential projects, such as building a hotel near the springs. “The process has been hijacked,” says Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta.
The pronouncement to sell preceded another controversial North Port City Commission decision. On Feb. 11, city commissioners, by a 4-0 vote, rejected Sarasota County's offer to buy North Port's half of the springs for $2 million. That price was $750,000 less than what North Port paid in 2010.
North Port Mayor Linda Yates, who voted to proceed with development invitations in July, only to turn on that in December, says the perception that she's the villain in the controversy is wrong. Instead, Yates says she and her colleagues who voted to sell are merely protecting North Port against risky developments from private entities. Says Yates: “I truly believe what we are doing is in the best interests of the community.”
Future: Warm Mineral Springs is currently managed by Naples-based Cypress Lending LLC, which took over the property from a previous ownership group in 2009 after a repossession. The Cypress Lending contract expires in June, so the site should remain open at least through then.
But officials, both in North Port and Sarasota County, say past that the future of the site is in limbo. It might temporarily close, for starters, if the commissions are still at a stalemate. Yates suggested at one public meeting that the springs be broken up into parcels owned by different entities. Sarasota County might also sue North Port for its decision to back away from the initial agreement to open the springs to potential development.