Sarasota County, North Port commissions debate future of Warm Mineral Springs, but unknowns persist

Warm Mineral Springs / RACHEL LEVEY-BAKER

The Sarasota County Commission and the North Port City Commission spent Monday morning, July 16, discussing the status and future of Warm Mineral Springs, the jointly owned, 87-degree “Fountain of Youth” that draws visitors who are curious about its reputation for healing and rejuvenation from around the world.

The commissions tackled three major issues: the need to extend the current memorandum of understanding between the city and the county, set to expire this December; how best to solicit private sector plans for the springs once the current management agreement is up next June; and whether to contract with the U.S. Geological Survey to explore and monitor the site in greater detail.

On the first point, extending the current city/county agreement, County Commissioner Joe Barbetta urged the boards to alter the proposed amendment to limit the extension to 24 months, instead of 36, changing the cutoff date from December 2015 to December 2014. He said government agencies should be working quickly on the project, because the springs have the potential to bring much-needed tourist revenue to North Port.

“Every day that goes by is costing everybody money,” he said, arguing that government agencies will always wait till the last minute to complete a project. Both commissions accepted Barbetta’s suggestion, and approved the amendment unanimously, meaning the two bodies must develop and approve “an Interlocal Agreement” for the future of the springs by the end of 2014.

The commissioners then tackled an important intermediate issue: how best to solicit bids from companies interested in managing or developing the springs. The original staff suggestion called for “a short-term Request for Proposal (RFP)” to be issued, but Barbetta pushed instead for an Intent to Negotiate process led by North Port and assisted by an outside consultant. He called the ITN an “easier process” that would get the project moving more quickly. North Port City Manager Jonathan Lewis said the ITN process would probably take around four months. County Administrator Randy Reid agreed that the ITN “indeed might be faster” than an RFP.

County Commissioner Jon Thaxton called the timing of the contracts “unfortunate,” because the current agreement expires next June, which leaves little time to set up a long-term plan for the springs without the necessity of signing another interim deal. He emphasized the need to use the ITN process to create a “segue” into the eventual long-term management of the springs.

The importance of establishing a solid, decades-long agreement with a private company to manage the property was driven home by staffers who traveled to Hot Springs, Ark., where the National Park Service works with private managers to oversee the area’s geothermal springs. Jeff Maultsby, the manager of business and economic development for the county, said the Park Service emphasized the importance of long-term deals with businesses that are “fully invested” in making the springs a success, rather than signing smaller-scale, shorter arrangements with multiple vendors.

But exactly what shape that final arrangement might take — ideas ranged from simply updating the springs’ existing structures to building a 100-room hotel — remains unknown, at least till the ITN process works itself out and the county and city can examine different proposals.

That’s not all we don’t know about the springs. County Geologist Cliff Harrison told the commissions that researchers haven’t even identified with certainty the source of the springs’ water. “The most obvious conclusion is that there is a lot of different conclusions,” Harrison said, adding that previous research hasn’t determined whether the 87-degree water bubbles up from a single source or whether the springs are connected to the Florida aquifer. If they are connected, then environmental conditions as far away as Polk County could affect the springs’ water quality. And, as he pointed out, “if the warmth and mineral are gone from Warm Mineral Springs, you don’t have a Warm Mineral Springs to promote.”

North Port Commissioner Jim Blucher asked Harrison if, should the springs continue to operate as is, you might see water quality problems there. Harrison said that until someone can map the springs’ hydrological connections, no one can know.

The staff asked the commissions to let them to negotiate a deal with the USGS to allow the federal agency to research and monitor the springs, which would then allow the boards to make better-informed decisions about future plans.

Barbetta wasn’t convinced, saying plenty of data existed. “I don’t want to give the federal government money that we don’t have to give them,” he said.

Commissioner Nora Patterson chimed in with a joke, saying, “Sounds like a good idea,” but later supported the motion to begin negotiating with the USGS. “It just seems logical,” she said.

The measure passed, but two North Port Commissioners, Tom Jones and Linda Yates, voted against it. Jones argued that there was no need for new data, and he said bringing in the USGS would just add another layer of bureaucracy. Yates said she thought the studies were “important,” but were something another agency (perhaps local) could address.