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North Port may raze historical buildings at Warm Mineral Springs

Written by on Sunday, March 10, 2024

In the meantime, the city commission urges activists to find alternatives.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Mar. 8, 2024

Host: An agreement with a developer for Warm Mineral Springs fell apart last month. Now, the City of North Port is trying to figure out what to do with the popular attraction that was wrecked by Hurricane Ian. Johannes Werner has the details.

[Soundbite historical Cyclorama]

Johannes Werner: That’s the soundtrack of the Cyclorama visitors of North Port enjoyed in 1959.

Today, North Port is a commuter bedroom community of 80,000. Attractions are few and far between. It has a brand-new spring training baseball stadium, it has a city-run aquatic park – and then there is Warm Mineral Springs.

That’s where the Cyclorama is located.

In September 2022, Hurricane Ian wrecked this natural spa and 60-plus acres of park, and the popular attraction remained closed until April last year. Talks for a public-private partnership to develop it failed a few weeks ago, reportedly due to concerns over cost of insurance.

Now, North Port is facing the task of restoring the popular attraction on its own.

At the beginning of the city commission meeting on Tuesday this week, a caller laid out what most activists want the commissioners to do.

Public commenter: Commissioners! Please stop the madness with Warm Mineral Springs. For years now, the city has neglected the property. For years now, the city has known what to do with the property, as it has sought public comment and opinion, through both workshops and a master plan, and later a survey of citizens. And time and time again, citizens have spoken they want this place respected. They want minimal if any development on the property. They want it to be the public park as it should be. They want it connected to the Legacy Trail, and they want to preserve public enjoyment, and for posterity. Do the right thing with Warm Mineral Springs and end the madness!

JW: When it became clear in the course of the meeting that the commissioners won’t pursue another public-private project, most activists were elated.

But what next? The consensus among the five city commissioners is to bring up to snuff the hot springs and surrounding park, and do it on a shoestring budget of $8.5 million.

Chuck English, a North Port resident, suggested a referendum, to increase that budget.

Chuck English: Warm Mineral Springs is part of the legacy of North Port. It’s been around a heck of a lot longer than all of us. Right. The only issue is, significantly having heard some great comments from this vocal minority that I keep hearing about. All right. Well, you better believe they’re not a minority, based on again, the significant perspective gained over the last few years. My mantra is very simple: Put it to referendum. It’s one of the most critical political aspects, and I will be back. Thank you.

JW: But the commissioners did not pick up his suggestion. Commissioner Barbara Langdon insisted she wants the city out of Warm Mineral Springs.

Barbara Langdon: I’m leaning in Commissioner McDowell’s camp when she says we should entertain the state taking over this and making it a state park. In my heart of hearts, I want the city out of the Warm Mineral Springs business. It’s just, we’re not equipped to manage and run that kind of an important asset. So I don’t think we need to stop our forward movement while we explore that. But I want to make sure that Warm Mineral Springs can maintain itself without going to the taxpayers.

JW: And that – in turn – kept the shoestring budget. This is not enough to repair the damage to buildings, forcing North Port to raze the three hurricane-damaged structures at Warm Mineral Springs, rather than rebuilding them.

These are not just any buildings – they are actually the only historical public buildings in what is the biggest city in Sarasota County.

The Cyclorama

There’s the sales and the spa building, but best-known is the Cyclorama. The Cyclorama was built for the Florida quadricentennial in 1959. It was designed by Jack West of Sarasota School of Architecture fame, and it features a mural depicting Florida history.

The city itself put the three structures on a local historical register. That prompted the National Register of Historic Places to add them in 2019.

Even so, at their meeting on Wednesday, the city commissioners voted 4-1 – with Commissioner Debbie McDowell dissenting – to direct staff to come up with a plan to tear down the three buildings, and replace them with one simple structure.

To be sure, the final vote will not happen until staffers come up with specifics for that plan, likely a matter of months.

That leaves activists who opposed the private-public development option with a limited-time opportunity to find partners that could help save the historic buildings. That could be non-profits, or it could be the State of Florida taking over the entire park.

Here’s how City Manager Jerome Fletcher put it.

Jerome Fletcher: Hopefully, it should not take six months, but I get your point. There will be a window of time there. And I would say, while we are doing that piece, it will allow the people who you have heard from vocally throughout …, the opportunity to organize in the way that they do – and all the voices we’ve heard about a state park and national park and other things that we’ve heard – it gives them the time to bring back that argument to you as well.

JW: At the same meeting, the commissioners voted to fast-track a connection of the Legacy Trail to Warm Mineral Springs. That one-mile connector could bring additional visitors by bike to the spa. The cost of that connector is $4.5 million, and that is already budgeted elsewhere.

Reporting for WSLR News, this has been Johannes Werner.


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