Unique partnership leads the way to eco-tourism destination

Within the next five years ­— or before 2018 — this concept (left) for a one-of-its-kind ecology park could materialize on 125 acres north of residential Apollo Beach. Tampa Electric Company, the Florida Aquarium and the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are combining forces to plan a state-of-the-art Conservation Center, an advanced marine Animal Rescue and Research Facility plus a saltwater sport fish hatchery as centerpieces in a unique eco-tourism destination. The park could include canoe/kayak trails, a treetop zip line and solar-powered ground transportation. Rendering courtesy Tampa Electric Company

By MELODY JAMESON

APOLLO BEACH
A multi-faceted ecological park exhibiting cutting-edge  technology and featuring memorable new experiences is being envisioned on 125 acres here.

The yet-unnamed environmental development focused on sustaining Florida waters, native plants and marine life as well as on renewable energy alternatives now is in the early planning stages by three of the state’s heaviest hitters: Tampa Electric Company, the Florida Aquarium and Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

If concepts being explored at present by this partnership become reality in the next three to five years, an eco-tourism destination unique to the Sunshine State, and possibly to the Southeast U.S., could offer such attractions as a tree-top trail complete with zip line, a marine animal rescue, research and holding facility on display, a fish hatchery replenishing some of Florida’s most popular fisheries and open to tours, canoeing and kayaking options, as well as transportation around the grounds by solar-powered vehicles.

The objective is public awareness and student education in resources for the future – from energy to fishes – all in an enjoyable, family-oriented environment.

This is the outline that representatives of the three organizations currently are working with, according to Cherie Jacobs, Tampa Electric spokesperson.

The facility, unlike any other in the state, is to be located on the utility’s property south of its Manatee Viewing Center complex and at Tampa Bay’s eastern shore. Some of the acreage is wetlands and ideally suited to use as a natural classroom demonstrating the life cycles native to this type of Florida ecology, she added.

One of the ecology park’s components is to be Tampa Electric’s “Energy Technology Center.” Using outdoor exhibits, Jacobs said the utility wants to demonstrate for visitors the latest known information “about renewable energy alternatives that are reliable, environmentally responsible and potentially viable for the Florida energy market.”

Another major component is the Florida Aquarium’s “Animal Rescue, Research and Holding Facility” to house its rehabilitation programs for such endangered species as sea turtles and river otters, to accommodate some of the aquarium’s research initiatives such as coral reef restoration, and to sequester other marine animals when desirable. “We’ve run out of room at our Channelside location.” acknowledged Katherine Chakour, Florida Aquarium spokesperson. From the aquarium’s perspective, she added, the new ecology park is “really expansion of who we are at Channelside.”

Yet another park aspect is the “Saltwater Fish Hatchery” to be operated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as part of its Florida Marine Fisheries Enhancement program.

Taking advantage of the park opportunity would allow expansion of a FWC hatchery currently ongoing at the Port of Manatee, noted Gil McRae, director of the FWC Research Institute headquartered in St. Petersburg. And the objective will be replenishing the Florida coastal waters stock of Red Drum, Snook and Spotted Sea Trout, all popular varieties with sports fishermen up and down the coast, McRae added.

The proposed park, he said, is particularly desirable from the FWC viewpoint because it offers coastal property for hatchery purposes which now “is very difficult to acquire.”

Both FWC and the aquarium want to conduct catch and release fishing programs for all ages at the park. Fishing clinics and family fishing outings are on the future agenda as part of their efforts to foster appreciation of Florida’s bounty and to encourage individual stewardship of the natural resources.

The two organizations also are expected to manage the Center for Conservation within the park framework where each will highlight their conservation and education programs, aiming to engage visitors with knowledge about the vital connections between Florida’s waters, her flora and her fisheries. Hands-on learning experiences that immerse students at all grade levels in exploration of the natural environment are anticipated as part of these efforts, Jacobs added.

While Florida has a number of state parks offering various environmental experiences for their visitors, from forested uplands to freshwater springs and riverine basins to coastal shorelines, and a 365-acre wetlands ecology park was created many years ago in Cape Coral, nothing as comprehensive as the proposed South Hillsborough facility in terms of features and educational options has been undertaken in the state.

The partnership’s vision is “focused on demonstrating the potential for technology and nature to work together harmoniously for the greater good of the community and the state,.” Jacobs said.

Tom Hernandez, vice president of energy supply for the utility, characterized the proposal as a complement to the Manatee Viewing Center as well as the Newman Branch Creek restoration project, and suggested the “unique blend” of experiential ecological education and energy technology “will become a year-round destination for Florida visitors.” a showcase of the utility’s commitment to the environment.

Jacobs said she could not yet put a price tag on the project and Chakour added that the aquarium is beginning to map out a fund raising campaign to underwrite their participation role.
As far as visitors are concerned, however, both basic admission and parking are expected to be free of charge.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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