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True Believer


  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 2:51 p.m. April 13, 2012
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
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REVIEW SUMMARY
Business. Warm Mineral Springs, North Port
Industry. Tourism, hospitality
Key. The springs, one of the largest in the state, is on the cusp of several major changes to its business model.

Burly and blunt, Gene Vaccaro tells anyone he can find that he's a first-in-line skeptic when it comes to so-called miracles.

Says Vaccaro: “I'm a great disbeliever in stuff I don't understand.”

Yet Vaccaro is transformed when he gets in front of a Chamber of Commerce luncheon or a board of tourism officials to chat up Warm Mineral Springs. He starts each presentation about Warm Mineral Springs, which, at its core, is a sinkhole in south Sarasota County, with the same stock line.

“I represent the most significant piece of property in Florida,” Vaccaro, the general manager of Warm Mineral Springs, will say. “And I have all the facts to prove it.”

If not the most significant, it's certainly one of the more unique tourism properties in the state. The facility is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Warm Mineral Springs is also at a crossroads, especially on its future business strategy and operating model. The possibilities flow deep, and officials, both government and private industry executives, say the next 12 months will be key to the facility's future.

“There is so much potential here,” says Robert Rosenberg, a 35-year tourism industry veteran and the president-elect of the North Port Economic Development Corp. “How far can we take it?”

The largest of the roughly 700 springs in Florida, Warm Mineral Springs is a water refuge situated on 81 acres in North Port, Sarasota County's most populous city. It had 116,000 visitors last year, more than double the 2008 and 2009 counts. Visitors pay up to $20 for a one-day pass, or $1,500 for annual entry.

The unique part of Warm Mineral Springs stems from the water, which Vaccaro calls the cleanest and purest known to man. That water is always 87 degrees, day or night, summer or winter. There are at least 51 minerals embedded in the water. And the best part, says Vaccaro, is Warm Mineral Springs replenishes itself by pumping 9 million gallons of water a day. “Every two-and-half hours the water is new,” Vaccaro says.

Those features have drawn an eclectic group of visitors to Warm Mineral Springs. One noted demographic is eastern Europeans, who have descended upon North Port in droves for decades. They hail from countries like Russia, Bulgaria and Slovakia, and they come strictly for the water and its alleged healing abilities, not any spa-like amenities.

Indeed, local legend has it that the water in Warm Mineral Springs can ease all kinds of suffering, from arthritis to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It's why Vaccaro and his staff pounced on “you'll feel better” for a marketing tagline. “We found ourselves saying that all the time,” says Vaccaro. “Everything we do here is about feeling better.”

Distinct features
But for all its wonder, Warm Mineral Springs is pure Old Florida kitsch to most Floridians.

Many locals, if they know it all, know it by the giant 1950s-style sign that greets visitors just outside the property, a few miles northeast of Tamiami Trail. The road that leads to the property has small ranch-style homes. Pink flamingo statues dot some lawns and driveways.

Nonetheless, past the peculiarity several business-focused questions linger for Warm Mineral Springs' future. Most pertinent: Even though it's more than 50 years old, what will the springs be when it grows up?

That's the crux of the current debate in the North Port business and civic community.

Local government will play a big role in Warm Mineral Springs' future because the city of North Port and Sarasota County co-own the facility. Having just one government entity own a tourism or recreation site can be a challenge all its own. Having two bureaucracies that occasionally compete with each other own the same site can compound the issues.

The county and the city bought Warm Mineral Springs for $5.5 million in a deal that closed Dec. 20, 2010. Officials for both governments say they bought the property in the 50-50 joint agreement to protect and preserve its distinct historical and archeological features. “We want to leverage the springs as a destination for that part of the county,” adds John McCarthy, Sarasota County interim executive director of community services.

Naples-based Cypress Lending LLC, which took over the property from a previous ownership group in 2009 after a repossession, currently manages Warm Mineral Springs. Cypress sold Warm Mineral Springs to North Port and Sarasota; the deal allows the lender to run the facility and keep all revenues through June 2013. Vaccaro manages Warm Mineral Springs for Cypress Lending.

Future options for Warm Mineral Springs run the gamut. The list includes extending the agreement with Vaccaro and Cypress; finding another management company to run it; or hiring a developer to create a long-term economic growth plan. The county and the city could also take over daily operations.

Big ideas
Within those plans, several other ideas have sprouted.

First off, most people connected to the project say it needs at least another $2 million in renovations, from larger bathrooms to a new entrance. Furthermore, it's a near-unanimous belief that a full-service hotel near the springs is an absolute necessity to draw regional tourists regularly. Others say the project needs an eco-tourism friendly hotel/resort.

Vaccaro envisions a hotel, plus several other revenue streams, including even adding more springs one day. Vaccaro says other revenues could come from capturing the water's power and selling a line of products, from body scrubs to bath salts to food seasonings. “You could close this place and make $1 million a day in products,” quips Vaccaro.

Sarasota County and North Port city officials recently held a few public meetings to discuss all the ideas and hear from local citizens. More meetings are scheduled for later this year. The participants seem to agree on one aspect: the idea that Warm Mineral Springs is a deep reservoir of economic opportunity, so no one wants to blow it.

But for all his time touring the state, the North Port EDC's Rosenberg never heard of Warm Mineral Springs until he moved to North Port in 2010. Rosenberg is a former member of the Governor's Tourism Advisory Board in Florida, and a onetime executive with tourism offices in Palm Beach and Miami.

“When I came here and was introduced to it I was just amazed,” says Rosenberg. “It could be one of the best, if not the best natural attractions the state of Florida has.”

McCarthy, who previously ran the county's parks and recreation department, agrees. McCarthy says the county first tried to buy Warm Mineral Springs in 1982. When the idea of a partnership with North Port came together in 2008, the county moved on it. Says McCarthy: “It's just an awesome opportunity for the community.”

'Marketing marvel'
Still, with all the talk about healing powers and hotels, and the facility being a hidden gem, it's hard to believe that Warm Mineral Springs was recently a ramshackle catastrophe.

That's how Vaccaro found it in fall 2009, when he checked out the facility for Cypress Lending. There was no landscaping. There weren't any signs. The bathrooms, says Vaccaro, were unusable. There were no amenities. Some employees, Vaccaro recalls, stood around smoking cigarettes.

Says Vaccaro: “It was disgusting and unsanitary.”

But a swim in Warm Mineral Springs sold Vaccaro on the potential, and he in turn sold his bosses at Cypress Lending on the possibilities. Cypress invested $500,000 in Warm Mineral Springs, work that included a $100,000 bathroom renovation. The firm also added a cafe and a nail salon. “We took a property that was an embarrassment to the city and the county,” says Vaccaro, “and made it at least acceptable.”

Vaccaro also helped turn Warm Mineral Springs into something Cypress could sell. Vaccaro, though, says he's since developed such a passion for Warm Mineral Springs that he would like to stay on past June 2013, when Cypress' contract ends.

“Once I was convinced about the power of the water, I knew we had a marketing marvel here,” Vaccaro says. “There is no way we could fail.”

A WARM HISTORY
Warm Mineral Springs, a sinkhole that's been turned into a quirky tourist attraction in south Sarasota County, also has a historical angle.
Divers have found human bones, remains and artifacts in the springs that date back thousands of years. The first known discovery was in the 1950s. In 1973, divers, at a depth of 155 feet, found the remains of a preserved 10,000-year-old man.
The site was admitted to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1977. But the history traces back to Ponce de Leon, who supposedly called Warm Mineral Springs the true Fountain of Youth.

Fast Facts: Warm Mineral Springs
• The springs were initially a sinkhole, caused by an earthquake, that filled with water from an aquifer. The water now ultimately makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico;
• The water in the springs is 87 degrees year round. That makes it one of the warmest springs in Florida;
• The surface is a 1.4-acre pond that's nearly 250 feet deep in the middle;
• The water in the springs is tested and verified by professional labs three times a year;
• At least 51 minerals have been discovered in the water;
• It pumps 9 million gallons of water a day.
Source: Warm Mineral Springs

 

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