Tussle Heats Up Over Warm Mineral Springs
Five hundred years ago, a group of Spanish explorers founded "La Florida" – land of flowers. According to legend, they were searching for the Fountain of Youth. Today, a little known tourist attraction in Sarasota County purports to be the site the explorers were seeking. But Warm Mineral Springs faces much tougher issues than proving the validity of that claim.
In its heyday, Warm Mineral Springs, located right off U.S. 41, was a top tourist spot. Then in the 1960s, Interstate 75 was built and the springs, for the most part, became just another failing roadside attraction.
Several years ago, the site was taken over by Cypress Lending, which spent $500,000 sprucing it up. In 2010 it sold to the City of North Port and Sarasota County. Cypress Lending’s Gene Vaccaro said its future is bright.
“It’s like the Phoenix, it keeps coming back this time for good,” he said. “We’ve seen business triple over the past four years, the world is just now discovering Warm Mineral Springs.”
But, Vaccaro’s enthusiasm is tempered by a conflict between the city and the county.
When they bought the springs and adjoining property the intent was to protect them since they are considered to be both a significant archeological and environmental site. Promoting development around the springs that would boost tourism was also part of the plan. But in 2012 North Port’s city council changed and a majority of the new leadership wants out of the deal. Mayor Mary Yates said the city should not be involved in the commercial development business.
“We’ve got to be able to use this for general public purposes,” she said. “Not primarily to be a place that was bought with public money to be then be used by a private developer to have profitable business venture.”
Yates says she’d prefer to see the springs run by the Parks and Recreation department. Right now, under Cypress Lending’s management, it’s run as a day spa and there’s a $15 admission fee for county residents, $20 for non-residents.
The city and county split the $5.5 million purchase price of the springs. When the city told the county it wanted to sell back its share – the county offered to buy it for $2 million. The current conflict ensued. Sarasota County Manager Randall Reed says its offer was fair.
“We offered them money to buy them out and we said that since there was going to be additional expenses we didn’t offer them the full amount that they had invested in the initial purchase because we were suddenly saddled with a project,” he said.
The acre-and-a-quarter pool is the convergence of three springs flowing up from the Floridan Aquifer, two cold and one hot. The result is a constant 87 degree temperature. It’s impossible to sink in the mineral laden water. Advocates claim immersion in the springs is helpful for a range of ailments from arthritis to dermatitis to cataracts. Maria Kuchrova said she’s coming to the springs for 15 years.
“I have cancerous skin and I have trouble with bones and every time I come here it gets better.”
When the city and county bought the springs, part of the deal was that Cypress Lending would continue to manage the property for 30 more months. That period is up at the end of June. Vaccaro supports more development at Warm Mineral Springs and said he would also like to see his company to continue managing the property.
“We have the local and international market," he says. "The market we’re missing is the national market –– what that requires is lodging. And we hope that’s in our future because when it is then it becomes a million visitors a year instead of 100,000. If we had a 300-room hotel here I would fill it every day.”
Warm Mineral Springs is bucolic place. The waters are surrounded by green lawns dotted with lounge chairs with plenty of shade from palm and live oak trees. There’s a subtle odor of sulfur, one of the 51 minerals found in the water. Soothing music streams from speakers. Organic food is served at the Evergreen Café. Massages and facials are available. But, the biggest draw always has been and probably always will be the waters.
Vaccaro says on weekends area families visit. On weekdays the majority are vacationing Eastern European expats like Rosa Gumenyak, a true believer in the water’s alleged healing qualities.
“This is (sic) miracle,” she said. “Mineral Spring is like a healthy ocean for us it’s very good for the health and it’s good for the mind because it’s very nice here in the fresh air.”
Simon Natis comes once a year from New York City. If he could he’d come more often.
“It’s worth it,” he said. “I definitely feel better.”
“You’ll feel better” is the slogan Warm Mineral Springs has adopted.
City of North Port Commissioners and Sarasota County Commissioners meet for a conflict resolution session April 17. If no agreement is reached, access to this modern day “Fountain of Youth” could come to an end at the end of June.