BY DIANA MOSKOVITZ

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The amenities aren’t much at Everglades Holiday Park: weathered boat ramps, chickee huts and wooden benches. The rustic souvenir shop sells bait, beer and toy alligators. There are no color schemes or elaborate park maps, only a welcome sign with a sketch of where to park: airboats to one side, guests to the other. It’s a slice of Old Florida, much the same scene that has greeted visitors for more than two decades. And that’s the way the regulars — hunters, fishermen and bikers — like it.

“The Everglades is one of the last places that’s untouched by man, and we should keep it that way,” said park manager Clint Bridges.

Broward County officials don’t share that sentiment. They want to take it over and make it over, including providing more parking, walking paths and a learning center in place of the campsite. “Our commission wants to make it be at the standard of our other parks,” said Bob Harbin, director of Parks and Recreation for the county, “rather than below standards, the way it looks right now.”

The park sits at the end of Griffin Road on Broward’s western edge, a gateway to the Everglades. A one-lane bridge leads inside. The park is always open and admission is free. Park employees have no uniforms, just whatever cotton clothing they like. After all, this is the Everglades, and it’s always hot. Humidity hangs in the air. Squawking peacocks preen around the parking lot until suddenly silenced by the roar of airboat engines, carrying gawking tourists.

Every day, visitors — a mix of overdressed South Beach trendsetters and casually-dressed families with children in tow — line up at the souvenir shop, browsing through Everglades history books and checking out T-shirts imprinted with a large alligator and the phrase “Bite Me.” Ice cream, beef jerky, boiled peanuts and fried alligator nuggets are for sale. Outside, fishermen try their luck in the waters, considered among the best in the country for bass. Trucks, vans and SUVs back up, with owners like Harry Whitmore gently lowering boats into shallow waters for launch. The North Miami man calls his 18-foot tracker grizzly “American Dream.”

“This is what I worked for,” Whitmore, 70, said as he and his wife Eleanor prepared to fire the engine. “Retire and fish.”

He has plenty of company. Clint Bridges estimates about 350,000 to 400,000 people visit annually, although those numbers are down about 6 percent this year. Broward County has owned the park land since the 1960s, when it leased the acres to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for a nominal fee.

In 1982, FWC leased the land to Mitchell Bridges, described by his son as a Georgia boy who spent most of his free time running airboats in the Everglades. Clint Bridges said his father, now retired, mortgaged the family home and gave running the place a shot. The land already had boat slips and a small store. Mitchell Bridges and wife Linda added chickee huts, the campground and, at one point, a zoo, which was shut down after a tussle with Broward officials.

These days, about 70 people regularly rent space on the campsite, a large swath of grass with 100 spaces for recreational vehicles and 36 spots for tents. Airboat tickets, boat rentals and souvenir sales also bring in money. This piece of the rustic South Florida wilderness is a consistent moneymaker.

In recent years, the Bridges have given FWC between $200,000 and $300,000 a year. The Bridges and their company keep the rest. As the lease is currently set up, the land owner — Broward County — gets nothing. All of that could end in three years when the Bridges’ lease runs out. Broward has asked FWC not to renew it.

“The county simply wants their property back, so we are giving it back to them,” said Chuck Collins, FWC’s regional director in South Florida. The county already has a vision for the park’s future and leaders have set aside $1.4 million for renovations. Those dollars are part of a long-term list of construction projects and won’t become available until 2011. But they are noted in this year’s proposed spending plan, which awaits County Commission approval. Broward’s plans show new boat ramps and buildings, all with easy access for the disabled. Paths wind along the property’s south end, near the swamp buggy launch.

County officials have said they will keep the park open 24-7, a critical feature for anglers who go out before daybreak and hunters looking for ducks and frogs. But they’ve also kept mum about if they will charge an entrance fee. The campground — where people live for months at a time in trailers so long as they can pay — will close. It does not match the county definition of camping, Harbin said. An education center will take its place. The county may have an ally in FWC Commissioner Ron Bergeron, a prominent Broward road builder and Everglades enthusiast, who has spent decades fishing and hunting in the swamp.

For years, Bergeron has been looking to build an Everglades museum. He has looked at several locations. Everglades Holiday Park “gives you the real experience,” he said. Would all these changes be for the best? That depends on who answers the question.

To county leaders, this is progress. To park regulars and employees, this is government meddling. “What standards?” asked Justin Hiteshew, 37, moments after he tossed out a line for a few bass before heading to work at the park, where he keeps the store stocked and checks the boats for maintenance.

“It’s the Everglades. It’s supposed to be wild.”

Others are less adamant but cautious. For example, the county’s plan to add parking was a great thing for fishing tournaments, said Rick Persson with South Florida Anglers for Everglades Restoration. But he fears the county’s design could create congestion for boaters.

“We’re happy with the way it is,” Persson said of the park. “You’re always a little skeptical about change. Change is sometimes not for the best.’ That depends on who answers the question.

To county leaders, this is progress. To park regulars and employees, this is government meddling. “What standards?” asked Justin Hiteshew, 37, moments after he tossed out a line for a few bass before heading to work at the park, where he keeps the store stocked and checks the boats for maintenance.

“It’s the Everglades. It’s supposed to be wild.”

Others are less adamant but cautious. For example, the county’s plan to add parking was a great thing for fishing tournaments, said Rick Persson with South Florida Anglers for Everglades Restoration. But he fears the county’s design could create congestion for boaters.

“We’re happy with the way it is,” Persson said of the park. “You’re always a little skeptical about change. Change is sometimes not for the best.”

Till next time tight lines and good fishing….
From Staff Writer BASSonline) [email protected]
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