Jasper — A nudist resort has been planned near the historic town of White Springs on the banks of the Suwannee River in Columbia County beginning in April.
Suwannee Valley Campground, at 786 NW Stephen Foster Dr., is under new owners B.G. Parkes and Tom Gillenwater, according to White Springs Town Manager Robert Townsend. Parkes, since 2007, has also been the owner and director of Bare Buns Bikers, a nudist motorcycle group. Parkes and Gillenwater, according to Townsend, plan to use the campground to operate a nudist resort.
Suwannee Valley Campground is officially located in Columbia County, however, their website gives a White Springs postal address. Suwanneecampground.com already indicates that the new owners are Tom and B.G., and, as of right now, there is no mention of a nudist resort on the site.
The introduction of a nudist resort so close to White Springs, where family-friendly tourism has been promoted for years, has city officials concerned about possible adverse effects. Townsend is particularly concerned because he lives along the stretch of road leading into the campground.
The nature of the campground over the years, Townsend said, has been host to everything from Boy Scout troops to family reunions to big biker clubs. Fifty to 100 motorcycles, he said have gone by his house in a day, as well as big motor homes, so he is used to the noise, but that's not the issue.
“In its heyday the place did a lot of business,” said Townsend of the campground.
Townsend said White Springs has been promoting the campground on the White Springs website, in brochures, with Suwannee Valley Marketing Group and with Visit Florida. Townsend said that a nudist resort would impact White Springs.
“I don't know that as a public entity we can promote nudity,” he said. “It's going to be an issue for the council to discuss,” he added.
He also said that the goal of White Springs is to promote family-oriented tourism.
“This is not family-oriented tourism. Quite frankly, in my opinion it's negative,” he said. “It's nudity. You're not going to have families staying there anymore.”
Townsend said he was told that the new owners were still going to have regular campers and on special events is when the nudist bike club would come in. He said the new owners plan on building a restaurant and bar on the site. Whether this new business will help the economy of White Springs, Townsend said, remains to be seen.
Another sticking point, Townsend mentioned, is the bridge-to-bridge canoe trip that runs from the bridge on US 41 to the bridge on CR 136, which happens to pass right by the campground. Townsend said it is one of the most popular in the area. There is also a trail near the site called the bridge-to-bridge trail, as well as the Florida Trail that runs through the campground. Townsend worries that a family, including children, could be canoeing down the river and once they round the bend there could be a nudist camp on 200 feet of waterfront property. There is also a walkway with a deck down by the river.
Townsend said he was told the new owners would address those issues by posting 'no nude swimming' signs, and signs that warn against being naked in the area.
“Well, I have signs up that say 'keep off the grass' and 'don't park here', but they don't always work,” Townsend said.
He said he would like to see the new owners come to town and meet the business owners, the park managers and city officials, and talk about what their plans are.
“That has yet to happen,” said Townsend.
Townsend said he met with the new owners on Sunday, Oct. 2 to voice his concerns. He said they were nice people and they advised him that when the nudist club starts up in April they would have privacy fences installed and signage about no nude swimming. They also said it will be a members-only club and that thorough background checks will be done on all new members.
Randy Ogburn, county commissioner for District 4 in which White Springs lies, is adamantly opposed to the planned resort.
“I don't think it's appropriate for this community,” he said. “Even though it's in Columbia County on the Suwannee River, I believe it will adversely affect the Town of White Springs, the state park (Stephen Foster) and tourism.”
Ogburn said a lot of people won't come to the park or to White Springs because of the presence of a nudist resort so close to the town.
“It degrades society, it degrades our morals that all our forefathers brought here to this country,” he added, however, he went on to say, “I don't know if there's anything that can be done about it.”
White Springs Mayor Helen Miller has been out of town due to a family illness, and as a result, she hasn't had the opportunity yet to speak with the new owners.
“The Suwannee Valley Campground has been struggling for several years due to the economic downturn,” Miller said. “As we are all painfully aware, the economy has severely impacted tourism and related industries in North Florida. I am hopeful that when any investors are planning historic and eco-tourism developments that they will consider the unique features we have here in the Suwannee River basin.”
Susan Ramsey from the Hamilton County Economic Development Authority said, “My first reaction is I'm surprised.”
Ramsey stated she was not officially aware of the planned resort along the Suwannee River near White Springs.
On the Bare Buns Bikers website their mission statement describes who they are:
“BBB will host and participate in charity events, community events, rides and rallies, both locally and on a state and national level. We will share ideas and information among members, work to support worthy endeavors and promote a variety of activities to encourage an awareness and appreciation for responsible motorcycle riding. We are establishing Chapters everywhere that nudist bikers live to provide more opportunities for our members to interact with their communities and to introduce others to the benefits of social nudism and motorcycling activities.”
Additionally, their purpose is, “to promote the positive aspects of social nudism and responsible motorcycling activities. BBB strives to provide the opportunity for wholesome fellowship and bridge the gap between nudist and non-nudist motorcyclists as well as the general population. We believe in fundamental human rights and freedoms based on respect of others.”
Townsend said, “I'm in a wait-and-see mode.”