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December 19, 2013

White Springs takes lease ownership of tourism center

Jasper — At the Dec. 10 meeting of the White Springs Town Council, the town agreed to sign a lease agreement with the state of Florida Park Service to lease two of their buildings, the tourism center and the old library building. There is no fee for the town to lease the two properties.

Over one-and-a-half years ago, the town of White Springs was approached by the state of Florida Department of Environmental Protection Division of Recreation and Parks for the possibility of the town taking ownership of several parcels of land. One parcel is the Nature and Tourism Center and the other property is the old library just outside the entrance to Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park.

“With the change in technology, how people plan their trips and travel, more of that is being done on the Internet,” White Springs Mayor Helen Miller explained. “We realized there was a transition coming for the tourism center, so we got that little bug in the ear that we needed to be proactive.”

In August, 2012, the town council began the conversation on the matter, which has been ongoing since, and just a couple weeks ago they received a lease agreement from the state park service to transfer those parcels to the town on a lease agreement.

“With that, we have about 12 months to develop management plans for each of those properties,” Miller said. “So, we have a year to come up with how we’re going to manage this now and in the future.”

Miller explained that the tourism center was being considered for closure or for huge reductions in hours of operation by the park service.

“That would not be a good thing for the town of White Springs or for the tri-county area,” she said.

The town, Miller said, will be able to transition the brochure vendors who pay for space in the tourism center.

“There is a revenue stream of a little over $6,000 from them,” said Miller.

By taking over the center, the town now has the option to expand the brochure vendor base to include even more local hotels and businesses, in order to increase that revenue.

“In addition, Visit Florida has encouraged us to submit an application next month for a $5,000 award to support the operations of the tourism center,” said Miller.

Those two revenue streams, Miller said, will pay for the basic expenses of the tourism center for one year. Staffing the center, Miller said, presents a challenge, but since the town is accustomed to using volunteers and themselves a lot already, she didn’t think it would be an issue. She explained that there could also be funding opportunities to help with staffing.

“Plus, we don’t have to be open at the same schedule as before,” she said. “So, we could start with the weekends or extended weekends.”

Miller stressed that the town doesn’t want to see any businesses close in the town and they want to do all possible to keep activities in the town going strong.

Town attorney Fred Koberlein, Miller said, has reviewed the lease agreement and the only change was to add an addendum to include the old library building.

A motion was made and seconded to approve the sub-lease agreement. Vice Mayor Walter McKenzie, who sits on the council, said after speaking to many residents in the town, he was assured there was a lot of support for the venture, although there were some concerns that the town was taking on something they couldn’t afford.

“I don’t think there are concerns,” he said. “From a financial standpoint, there’s very little money at risk in terms of operating expenses. There is a revenue stream. There are a lot of opportunities that we’re on the verge of exploring, and there are some opportunities that are almost a sure thing that are going to come through as a way of funding.”

The big picture, he said, is that an empty building sitting at the entrance to the town would not be a good thing for White Springs or for Hamilton County. It would give off a negative impression, he said.

With the upcoming shutdown of one of PotashCorp’s plants in the county and revenue drying up due to the economy, McKenzie said, “You’ve got to be willing to take a chance and look at other avenues.”

He went on to say that after a reasonable length of time, after giving the venture their best shot and it doesn’t work out, they can simply give it back to the state and be no worse off  than if they decided not to take it on.

“On the other side of the coin, if some of the things that we explore and try to do work out, then we will have taken advantage of an opportunity that only comes along once,” said McKenzie. “Is it going to be a challenge to do this? I think so, but you know what? I think right now we have to be willing to accept some challenges.”

Miller introduced Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park’s Manager Michelle Waterman, who will be the liaison for the tourism center between the town and the park service. She also introduced Bobby Toothaker, the current director of the tourism center, who has been taking care of “his kid” (his term for the tourism center) for the last four years.

The council then voted unanimously to approve the sub-lease agreement.

Waterman said, “I just look forward to the partnership. Again, it’s just a continuation of what we already have. I think it’s wonderful that you all are taking the challenge.”

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