BRADENTON – At Tuesday's BOCC meeting, the commission approved a resolution that detailed an agreement to purchase 150 acres of land from the Robinson family in order to expand public land for the Robinson Preserve. An educational center would be built on the preserve for visitors, which, in the words of the county's Director of Natural Resources Charlie Hunsicker, would be "a center for nature, exploration, science and technology."
Mr. Hunsicker began the presentation on the proposed agreement by calling it a "milestone moment" that would help protect habitats for wildlife, and explained that the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, Inc., a 501(c)3 group, would "move forward in the effort to acquire this property....with a generous donation...to give the property back to the residents and citizens of Manatee County."
The partnership between the CFGC and Manatee County was created in August for the purpose of negotiating a deal to acquire the land. Mr. Hunsicker also praised the Robinson family as having a historical legacy in the county and "through the years have made a steadfast commitment to conservation and the environment."
Christine Johnson, the president of the CFGC, was also on hand to detail the benefits of the proposed acquisition. She noted that the expansion would allow wetlands to be reclaimed and restored, "which in turn improves our water quality, and Manatee River, Perico and Palma Sola Bay, which in turn increases the viability of our fisheries, an important economic driver for the county. She called the agreement "an extraordinary example of how public, private and not for profits can come together and do the right thing for the environment and community."
A major discussion point was the planned educational center for the preserve, which the county would be required to build within 5 years, as per the acquisition agreement.
Commissioner Carol Whitmore asked Mr. Hunsicker if he could first give the commission a detailed financial plan on how the educational center would be built, before the commission went ahead in approving the expansion.
The director responded by saying, "We never make promises we can't keep," and noted that a budget amendment was included in the agenda that would redirect money from the Natural Resources Department.
Acknowledging the budget amendment, Mrs. Whitmore still had concerns about whether the center would be cost-efficient. The planned center was one of many that were conceived, and would be a high-end project compared to some of the others.
Mr. Hunsicker seemed to alleviate her concerns, acknowledging that the center would indeed be outside of the department's budget. Even so, he promised to find a way to solve that issue, saying, "I always enjoy a challenge." Whitmore said that if the challenge could be met, the community would be better off in the long run with a high-end educational center, as opposed to a more modest one, which she suggested might eventually be torn down in order to make room for a grander center.
Also speaking during the discussion were representatives from Sarasota Bay Watch and START.
Larry Stoltz of SRQ Bay Watch pledged support of the expansion, saying his organization "would work to provide great hands on experiences, environmental education, and awareness events as well as opportunities for people to pitch in and help make a difference (in the preserve)."
Mary Sheppard, as well as Sandy Gilbert of START, were also on hand to advocate the expansion. Mr. Gilbert said that START would "join the Sarasota Bay Watch and other organizations and make the most out of what we do by getting volunteers to help."
Mr. Chappie closed the discussion, saying, "I don't think there's any other urban community that can match what we have on our shores." Commissioner Larry Bustle then made a motion to approve the agreement, which was passed unanimously.
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