Thirty residents from within the Heritage Harbour development on State Road 64 near Interstate 75 met for the first time Sunday night to organize themselves into a protest group to block construction of a water park near their community.
The residents are poised — they talked about a blistering letter writing campaign to the Manatee County Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection, a show of unity at a late July county commission meeting and about raising $5,000 for an attorney — to fight against construction of Lost Lagoon water park, proposed to be built on 20 acres a few steps from where the residents were meeting Sunday, at the pavilion at Tom Bennett Park, 400 Cypress Creek Blvd.
The residents don’t have faith the the developer can pull off a world-class park in 20 acres. They fear the project will go bankrupt and the county will be forced to take it over and, to recoup losses, may use the site for public concerts, which could cause increased noise and traffic congestion.
The residents also said a water park is not what Tom Bennett envisioned when he worked with Manatee County to create a pristine green space in East Manatee.
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According to Lost Lagoon’s proposal, the water park has a tentative grand opening date of Feb. 25, 2017.
Protest group leader Tim Petz, a River Strand-Heritage Harbour resident who first sounded the alarm to fellow residents about the water park, conveyed his belief Sunday that it would be impossible for a developer build a world-class water park on just 20 acres at the park.
Petz told the group that smaller water parks have recently failed in Naples, West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, leading in some cases to alternative uses for the sites. But larger parks are doing OK.
“The world-class water parks have marketing budgets of millions of dollars,” Petz said.
The closest water park to the property is a large one, Tampa’s Adventure Island.
Twenty acres is all that Lost Lagoon developers have to work with to insert more than a dozen rides, including a ropes course, wave pool, lazy rivers and a number of slides, according to county documents.
A hotel also has been discussed for the site.
Developers also are proposing possible future expansions, including an amphitheater, a small-format zoo, miniature golf, and aquatic or athletic facilities.
A majority of Manatee County commissioners support the project, said Petz, who added that the project still has a long way to go before final approval.
“I love the idea of a water park,” Petz added. “But I think it should be done in a part of the county that has the space for it. Look what Walt Disney did. Did he build Disney World in the backyard of subdivisions? No, he built Disney World in a remote area and development came toward him.”
Petz told the residents that he didn’t understand why this 20-acre tract was deemed perfect when the county has 900 square miles of land.
Petz also told the residents that the county did not get a huge response to its request for proposals on the project and that the county appears to be giving the land to the developer in return for sharing in the profits.
“If this was a good location, developers would be all over it,” Heritage Harbour resident Clifford Wolf told the group.
A resident who did not want his name revealed announced at the meeting, “They will come, take our money, go bankrupt and run.”
Petz told the group that the fact that the developer is now asking Manatee County for approval for a hotel on the site even makes it more unlikely that everything requested can be stuffed into the 20 acres, which are part of about 200 acres at the county-owned park.
“I think it’s the wrong place to put it,” said Heritage Harbour’s Bob Walsh after the meeting. “You can’t just squeeze it into a small parcel.”
Walsh, like Petz, is also fearful that the park could cause traffic congestion throughout the Interstate 75 and S.R. 64 area, which also is getting a new bridge off Upper Manatee River Road.
“To not look at everything first, including a traffic study of Port Harbour Parkway in light of the bridge and this water park, is a mistake,” Walsh said.
Lost Lagoon had actually created nearly all positive reactions in those who heard about it before Sunday.
“We wanted something that more represented Manatee County and Old Florida,” William Gridley, spokesman for Lost Lagoon, told commissioners in 2015. “Lost Lagoon is an opportunity to rediscover something that’s been here all along.”
While the Manatee County Commission must give its stamp of approval before construction can begin, the county’s evaluation committee, which consists of Dan Schlandt, deputy county administrator; Charlie Hunsicker, director of parks and natural resources department; and Melissa Wendel, county purchasing official, already liked what they saw, recommending that the county begin negotiations with Lost Lagoon Development LLLP.
“Lost Lagoon will be the start of what we hope will be a tourism destination,” Gridley said. “A park that isn’t just a playground for kids but places where families can go but also draw tourists. This can be the start of something much bigger for Manatee County.”