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Spring Forward


  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 7:18 a.m. December 28, 2012
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Strategies
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The perils of government intersecting with business are on full display at Warm Mineral Springs.

The springs, in North Port, a south Sarasota County city, are one of the more unique tourist destinations on the Gulf Coast. The water, which springs executives say remains 87 degrees, day or night, contains more than 50 minerals. The firm that manages the springs, backed by 100,000 annual visitors, including many eastern Europeans, says the water is clean and pure, with restorative healing powers.

The destination, though, is at a crossroads — and 2013 will likely be a year of significant transition.

Sarasota County and the city of North Port bought Warm Mineral Springs for $5.5 million in a deal that closed Dec. 20, 2010. Naples-based Cypress Lending LLC, which took over the property from a previous ownership group in 2009 after a repossession, manages Warm Mineral Springs for the governments. That management contract ends in June.

That contract expiration, moreover, is what brings both the opportunities and the conflict.

Officials for both governments say they bought the property in a 50-50 joint agreement to protect and preserve its distinct historical and archeological features. But the strategies to get there, it turns out, aren't aligned.

Some Sarasota County officials, on one side, would like to see Warm Mineral Springs capitalize on the current momentum. Those officials envision an even bigger and better spa, and maybe a nearby hotel and other commercial development.

But some North Port city commissioners worry that private development agreements might be moving too fast. So much so that on Dec. 18 North Port commissioners, in a 3-2 decision, voted to pursue a sale of its ownership stake in the springs. That puts other plans in jeopardy.
Several public meetings were held in late 2012 to discuss both sides of the approach, with no resolution by the middle of December.

While government officials try to hash out a plan, Gene Vaccaro, who runs Warm Mineral Springs for Cypress Lending, offers his own solution: Extend the management contract for Cypress to run the springs. Vaccaro says the firm's work in the past three years has brought unprecedented growth to the springs, and he believes that familiarity will breed more success.

“The business is growing like crazy. (But) we just don't hope the community will show up,” Vaccaro says. “We have made a significant investment into this property.”

Cypress, in fact, invested $500,000 in Warm Mineral Springs. Renovations include a $100,000 bathroom upgrade, a new cafe and a nail salon. The work led to a boom in visitors: The 2012 visitor count, nearly 120,000 people, doubles the tallies in each of 2008 and 2009. Vaccaro, furthermore, projects that count could reach 500,000 by 2018.

Vaccaro says he and the team, currently 46 employees, will continue to improve the facilities and daily operations at Warm Mineral Springs while the governments figure out the future. Vaccaro, for example, recently hired a fitness director, a community outreach official and a medical director. The staff, Vaccaro adds, seeks to add new programs and classes.

“We are proud of what we accomplished,” says Vaccaro. “We look forward to being here well into the future.”

 

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