A huge swath of manicured mud just south of the Big Bend Power Plant is undergoing a transformation.
It started with the planting of some native grasses, but when it's finished, a new conservation and technology park could serve as a catalyst for job growth in the area, officials said.
Dozens of students from Dowdell Middle Magnet School in Palm River recently planted 3,000 native wetland plants to kick off construction of the park just south of Tampa Electric Company's Manatee Viewing Center.
County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who attended the planting, said the park, which will be free to the public, will bring a needed jolt to an area stunted by the recent recession and struggling economy.
The elaborate 95-acre park will include the Florida Aquarium's Center for Conservation, a state hatchery for snook, redfish and trout and kayak and walking trails.
The park will bring eco-tourists here and the jobs will follow, Murman said.
"There is no more important issue in the state than figuring out how to preserve our natural environment," while keeping the economy moving, Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa said during the planting ceremony. And by allowing the public in to get a glimpse of natural Florida, the project will promote the concept that people and businesses can co-exist with nature, she said.
The park is a partnership among TECO, The Florida Aquarium and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
It will likely take three to five years to finish, but already the former fish farm is being converted into kayak trails, a pond to grow grasses for bay restoration and walking trails for future visitors.
The FWC will build a Florida Youth Conservation Centers Network educational facility in the park, which will include interpretive trails and a catch and release fishing program for kids.
Construction on the buildings within the park should start this year, said Tom Hernandez, TECO's vice president of energy supply.
"We're at the point where we're ready to start building," Hernandez said. "We've got the vision, the concept and a lot of support from the community."
The Manatee Viewing Center, which recently received a few upgrades, including a paved parking lot and new viewing platform, will be part of the conservation park. The viewing center alone draws about 200,000 visitors annually.
The park will also be used to showcase energy technologies and renewable resources, Hernandez said. That will start with the solar-powered trams the park will use to move visitors from one area to another.
The aquarium will also use the park as an extension of its animal rescue and rehabilitation program.