Ocala Star Banner
February 19, 2011
We need a game changer at Silver Springs
By: Navroz F. Saju
Special to the Star Banner
The following is a letter sent by the author to the Marion County Board of County Commissioners. It has been edited for length.
The first time I experienced the World Famous Silver Springs Attraction was in 1977. My parents had brought us during our February winter vacation to visit Disney World. In 1977, a vacation trip to Florida would not be complete without a visit to the world’s largest artesian fresh water springs — Silver Springs. Despite my brother and me being 5 and 8, respectively, we fondly recall the area filled with economic vitality.
The many small, successful businesses in the area coupled with the Florida sunshine made us feel that we were in a special area. As we entered the park, I remember my parents having to park in the back lot because the front lots were full, unlike today. The park inside was full of people and energy. I clearly remember everyone on our glass-bottom boat being in awe at witnessing 550,000 gallons of 99.8 percent pure fresh water being discharged daily from the Floridan aquifer.
Fast forwarding to the present, the area surrounding the “World Famous” Silver Springs Attraction is completely different. Ironically, the center of economic activity in this very unique eco-area revolves around the big box stores. The area’s state of disrepair coupled with the many struggling small businesses has resulted in many classifying this once robust area as “blighted.”
Many of the out-of-town guests staying at our Holiday Inn Express and Suites frequently comment on the park’s state of disrepair. As these unhappy visitors to Marion County leave our hotel, they bid farewell by a storefront of boarded stores.
One of our hotel guests even once commented as to “why would Holiday Inn put a new hotel out here?”
The reason Holiday Inn would build a new hotel “out here” is because our Silver Springs Attraction has been classified by ecotourism experts as being a national eco-treasure of the same magnitude as Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. Furthermore, our Silver Springs Attraction borders the largest national forest East of the Mississippi. Within this area there are picturesque walking trails, freshwater springs, lakes, campgrounds, hunting areas and bird watching venues.
We all agree that the status quo is unacceptable. We all also agree that the park is both a tremendous natural resource and can be a source of economic growth. The issue is how we can expeditiously transition from the status quo in a manner that both protects this natural resource while reviving the economic engine that is Silver Springs.
I have attended the most recent Board of County Commissioners meeting discussing the park’s future as well as reached out to those within our community to discuss the park’s future. Based on these conversations, Marion County’s Eco-Tourism Entrepreneurial Initiative, partnered with the Silver Springs CRA Development Initiative, could be a very positive economic game changer for the area. The reasons follow:
It would address the significant disrepair and deterioration at the Silver Springs Attraction and put a plan in place for much-needed repairs and corrections of building code violations. Currently, no such plan exists.
The longer the county waits to assume the park, the further the park deteriorates, thus, increasing the costs to the taxpayers in rehabilitating the park. In other words, time is of the essence.
It would restore the Silver Springs Attraction park to its true intent of being a world-class ecotourism venue where out-of-town visitors can ride the world-famous glass-bottom boats, swim, canoe, kayak, scuba and snorkel in the springs.
This would potentially create a niche entertainment market for Silver Springs so that it would not be directly competing with major attractions such as Disney World and Busch Gardens.
It could provide public partnership with institutions of higher learning where the springs can be studied and provide entrepreneurial opportunities for food vendors and ecotourism activity vendors.
Based on Marion County studies, transforming Silver Springs to anchor a unique “outdoor adventure” venue would create 500 jobs in a county that has an unemployment rate of more than 14 percent.
The current operator of Silver Springs Attraction does not want to be the caretaker of our county’s most valuable asset. Consequently, our community doing nothing is not an option because all sides on this issue agree that the current model is in rapid decline and not sustainable.
Hence, the County Commission’s Eco-Tourism Entrepreneurial Initiative, partnered with the Silver Springs CRA Development Initiative, would be the economic game changer that the Silver Springs area desperately needs. The only businesses in the Silver Springs area with the full parking lots are the big box stores. Most of the small businesses struggle, while Marion County’s most valuable asset, Silver Springs, continues to deteriorate.
In the hotel industry, it is stated that 80 percent of your future business can be found from your hotel’s own backyard within your existing customers. Similarly, Silver Springs Attraction can be the major job creator that many of our local leaders continue to look outside Marion County for. A strong argument can be made that a significant ingredient in Marion County’s future revitalization can be found in its own backyard — Silver Springs.
Navroz F. Saju is CEO of HDG Hotels, an Ocala-based hotel chain. The Hotel Development and Management Group this week was honored as the Ocala/Marion Chamber of Commerce’s minority business of the year.