Don’t flip McConnell

Alachua County: Where nature and culture  – if not necessarily minds – meet.

Honestly, sometimes I think the county’s left hand doesn’t know what its right hand is doing.

On one hand, officials are involved in an extensive discussion over how to attract more visitors to the county where nature and culture meet. 

On the other hand, they have been falling all over themselves in a rush to flip Camp McConnell, a 212-acre natural and cultural asset that the county purchased with Wild Spaces Public Places money.

I don’t understand the unseemly rush, or even the motivation, to sell that former YMCA camp. And at bargain basement prices no less.

I thought the whole purpose of Wild Spaces and Public Places was to preserve, not churn, important lands by placing them in public ownership. 

And then there’s that whole push to bring more tourists to our nature- and culture-imbued county.

So What’s the connection between Camp McConnell and the county’s desire to increase tourism? 

Here’s a for instance: The last time Bike Florida brought several hundred cyclists from around the country to Alachua County – for our 2011 Florida’s Eden tour – we camped at McConnell. And for good reason. It is located in close proximity to some of the best cycling routes Florida has to offer. 

And it’s not just cycling that attracts. Camp McConnell is strategically positioned so as to offer easy access to Cross Creek, historic Micanopy, the Ocala horse country, Orange Lake, Prairie Creek, Paynes Prairie, Sweetwater Preserve, Tuscawilla Preserve, Lochloosa Lake, Newnan’s Lake, the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail and much much more. 

In other words, it lies at the heart of a region that is rich with the potential to attract cyclists, kayakers, birders, hikers, fishermen, equestrians, nature photographers…..really, any number and variety of ecotourists. 

(BTW, commissioners. Our neighbor Putnam County is going full guns to brand itself as the ecotourism center of Florida. We’re not even in the race yet.)

And you want to talk culture? With its facilities McConnell could host artist retreats and paint-outs, offer historical expeditions to Marjorie Kinnon Rawlings Cracker House, Micanopy and other points of interest. Or gator watching treks to Alachua Sink. How about bluegrass festivals or folk arts events? The possibilities are endless.

Which is not to say that the county necessarily needs to manage and operate a nature and cultural activity center. The county has owned Poe Springs for decades without having to actively manage it. Leasing or franchising arrangements could be made with a company that specialize in running active ecotourism centers. There might even be some local entrepreneurs who would like to take on that challenge. McConnell, with its outbuildings and athletic facilities and swimming pool and related infrastructure, is a prime location for an outdoor adventure center. 

So why the rush to unload it? And do we really want to set a precedent by flipping land bought with Wild Spaces Public Places money? 

Hey, maybe we ought to raffle off Poe Springs while we’re at it.

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